The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is on track for a record year of economic development accomplishments despite a global pandemic -- thanks in part to the foresight of its chief executive officer, Jay Chesshir.
Chesshir, who took over as president and CEO of the Chamber in 2006, says the achievement is because of hard work put in several years ago to bring companies like Amazon and Costco to the area. And the work to lure more business to the area continues.
"Our pipeline has not stopped. It continues to be very, very robust, which leads me to say from an economic prognostic creation perspective, the future of our economy -- as long as we continue to address infrastructure and land and buildings that are required to be competitive -- as long as we do our part, I think the future is extremely bright for metro Little Rock," he says.
And Chesshir -- who proclaims he is a "Nashville Scrapper" -- seems like someone whose future has always been bright. But it didn't necessarily look that way when he had aspirations of playing college sports.
Chesshir was born in Arkadelphia, but his family moved to the southwest Arkansas town Nashville when he was in first grade. As a Scrapper, the Nashville High School mascot, he excelled in most sports but especially baseball.
He had dreams of playing at the college level. He almost did, but an injury stopped him before he could hit the field.
The son of Jane and James William Chesshir Sr. was nicknamed Jay by his mother to differentiate him from his father and others with similar names on both sides of the family. His father grew up in Nashville, and his mother was raised in McGehee.
The family moved to Nashville when the elder Chesshir was hired at Production Credit Association -- now known as Farm Credit. Nashville at that time was small to some folks -- about 4,000 residents -- and Chesshir and his sister, Debbie, and brother, Bryan, knew practically everyone.
"It was wonderful," Chesshir says of growing up in small-town USA. "I laughingly tell people about driving a tractor when I was 9 years old and having my first real car accident on Main Street at 12. It was just a different time and place. It was an absolute joy to grow up in. It was like a big family from the perspective of growing up in a small town. Many days, I sometimes wish that life was that simple again."
While parts of life in a small town were simple, the lessons he learned as a young teenager were more complicated. His mother was the first woman elected to the local school board, and she "ruffled some feathers with some folks who weren't doing right," he says.
"Unfortunately, I learned at a very early age that sometimes politics is a rough place to be around because the barn and the tractor and the vehicle and all the tools were burned," Chesshir says.
The family lived in town but had a farm outside the city limits.
"Mother had led in making some decisions," he says. "Of course nothing was ever proven. Long story short, they knew it was arson. They just never could pin it on a specific individual, but our barn and another school board member's house that was under construction were both burned the same night."
The Chesshirs brought their children up in the Church of Christ, and the family began attending a country church when Jay was 13. There he joined a group where he learned how to sing the lead in church services.
"When you are in a small country church at the same time that your voice was changing certainly was a funny thing," he says. "On any Sunday morning, my voice would break in the middle of a song."
His mother was raised a Methodist, and his father grew up in the Church of Christ.
"We were taught responsibility and accountability from the very beginning. And yet, we all make mistakes. We all continue to make mistakes," Chesshir says. "There were always consequences for bad decisions, but those consequences were always in love. And I was blessed with two amazing parents who came from different faith backgrounds.
"Throughout their journey from a faith perspective, it was always more about worshipping God as opposed to necessarily the way that worship looked."
In high school, Chesshir played "pretty much anything that was in season" with the exception of tennis because it happened in the middle of track and baseball season. He excelled in football and baseball and was offered college scholarships in both.
The University of Arkansas was interested in his baseball skills but wanted him to spend a year at a junior college. Chesshir signed up at Lubbock Christian College in Texas with the intent to get a year under his belt before transferring to the Razorbacks team.
But before he made it to Texas, Chesshir broke his big toe during a high school football game. At Lubbock, he tore his rotator cuff; and he "hung up the baseball cleats at that moment in time."
He transferred to Fayetteville in the spring semester and graduated in 1985 with a bachelor of science in business administration. He planned to go to law school but decided to take a year off and ultimately took a position at Merrill Lynch in Hot Springs.
Not knowing anyone in town, he joined the Jaycees Club, which helped him build his career. A few years later, an at-large position on the Hot Springs City Board of Directors came open, and Chesshir decided to run for office. He was 27.
He ended up in a three-person nonpartisan race -- competing against two older men. With the help of his campaign manager, Chesshir decided to keep his age a secret and did not use his photo in any campaign material. But on the day of the election, the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record ran a story that included photos of all of the candidates. His campaign manager told him, "We are sunk."
"I was blessed to win it and became, I guess it is still true, the youngest person elected in history" of the Hot Springs Board of Directors.
But his time on the board was short-lived. The city went from a four-district, three at-large configuration to a six-district, one at-large member. Chesshir ran against an incumbent and lost. But he believes his four years on the board helped prepare him for his future in economic development.
"It gave me the opportunity to really stop and listen to multiple sides of different issues as opposed to just relying on my own experience," Chesshir says. "It helped me become a more mature decision-maker, and I think a better collaborator as opposed to just always getting things done on my own."
The opportunity also introduced him to economic development. As a city director, he worked to bring Klipsch Speakers to an old manufacturing building in Hot Springs. After landing the deal, Chesshir applied for the leadership job at the Garland County Economic Development Corp.
About five years later, he worked on the merger of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corp. and applied for the CEO position, thinking he was a shoo-in. Eric Jackson, who was part of the leadership team for the merger, thought otherwise -- saying a search was necessary.
"What he taught me was that even though you put in the work to get something accomplished, it is still not finished until you get through a transition and into a more specific direction in terms of growing -- whether it's the business, the organization or whether it's any other decision you have to make.
"You just can't make the decision and think you are finished and walk away. There's still more work left."
After the search process was completed, Chesshir was hired as president and CEO, a position he held for 11 years.
"I don't think we've had, up until that time, a better CEO. He just knocked it out the park," says Jackson, senior vice president at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. "Jay has the extraordinary ability to bring people together for the common good in such an unassuming, mild way that you don't know it has happened until you look up."
WELCOME TO LITTLE ROCK
In 2005, he was hired to head the 11-county Little Rock Metro Alliance. A little over a year later, he was named president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"The first thing I love about the job is no two days are alike. Every day, I come to work with this amazing team that I'm blessed to work with. Something's always different. Needs change, opportunities change, problems change. And so it never gets boring.
"What we do today will have an amazing, positive impact on people and their families through the opportunity at a new job or a better education, or whatever community issue that we're engaged in trying to help make this community a better place.
"We impact people's lives every day who will never know who we are. And I always liken it to feeding the soul. You know when you have the opportunity, even in the midst of all the problems and the disagreements and the changes and covid and everything that is taking place around you. Being able to lay your head on that pillow at night and being thankful for the opportunity to do this work, but also being thankful for what this work is doing for others -- it just truly feeds the soul."
Ronnie Dedman, president of AT&T Arkansas and chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, says Chesshir deserves "glowing accolades." Dedman became chairman of the organization at the start of the year.
"When I took over in January, I had plans and thoughts about the direction that we would go, and then the pandemic hit," Dedman says. "Just for a brief moment, we sort of scratched our heads and said, 'What's next?'
"But from an economic development standpoint, Jay and his team had laid the foundation for a lot of what is happening right now," Dedman says. "One thing that I have learned about economic development this year is that it just doesn't happen overnight. You've got to build relationships with companies and site selectors over time, and that's exactly what he's been able to do. Little Rock and Central Arkansas are reaping the benefits of the hard work he and his team have done over the years."
When asked about accomplishments over his 14-year tenure, Chesshir points not to headline grabbers like Amazon or Dassault Falcon Jet, but to the creation of the Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The department helps attract industry, he says.
"The reality is, in today's world and going back even 15 years ago, if you were in a market that didn't have an engineering school within a 50-mile radius, you simply were taken out of the process," Chesshir says.
FINDING LOVE AT A WEDDING
Chesshir remembers first meeting his future bride, Lara, at a wedding in 1992. He was a groomsman and she was a bridesmaid. "We were standing there at the rehearsal in the church, and she comes walking down the aisle. I look at my friend who was getting married and said, 'Who is that?' The rest is history."
He had actually been introduced to Lara sometime earlier but did not remember it. The two dated for four years before marrying in 1996. They have three children -- Claire Foster, a third-year medical resident at Arkansas Children's Hospital, and James William III and Sam, who are both students at UA. His grandson Ben Foster is 3 years old.
Now an empty-nester, Chesshir devotes most of his spare time to training and competing with his Labrador retrievers. A quail hunter with his father while growing up, Chesshir didn't go on his first duck hunt until he was an adult. After his second duck hunt, he became captivated with the idea of training Labs. He read books and watched videos to learn how.
Eventually, he learned about hunt tests for Labs, a competition where retrievers are judged against a certain standard.
"The first hunt test I ever went to I ran with a very young dog that I had at the time," he says. "And I just got bitten by the bug. I took to it hook, line and sinker. I literally quit playing golf and started training dogs in the early morning and in the late afternoons after work."
He and his dogs have earned many accolades including one pup who was a two-time Labrador retriever national champion finalist. His current troupe of Labs are named for songs: You Know You Make Me Want to Shout -- call name Otis (Redding); Eleanor Rigby; and Let the River Run, call name Carly (Simon).
"If you need humility, this is a game that will give that to you every single weekend," Chesshir says of competing with his dogs. "It is so competitive and it is so difficult to be successful. I just love the training aspect."