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OPINION | REX NELSON: The outdoors sector

by Rex Nelson | June 12, 2022 at 1:41 a.m.

In 2013, Katherine Andrews earned a degree in finance from the University of Arkansas and went to work for the Hathaway Group, a Little Rock commercial real estate firm. Three years later, she moved to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which she described at the time as "the sales team for the state."

Andrews worked on economic development projects across Arkansas. She especially liked working in small towns such as Trumann.

"There was a company that was expanding its manufacturing facilities, and it needed help with incentives," she says. "It made a big difference to the people in that town. I'm sometimes the only woman in the room, and it took me a long time to be able to confidently walk into that room and know what I was saying and look people in the eye. I would encourage more women to get out there and get after it."

Andrews' first five years at AEDC were spent as a project manager in the business development division. In May 2021, she was named the director of small business and entrepreneurship development.

Getting after it paid off for Andrews. Last November, she was selected to head the state's newly created Office of Outdoor Recreation. I believe that office will wind up being among the most important parts of state government. That's because Arkansas' outdoor recreational attributes greatly enhance the state's ability to attract and retain the kind of talented people we must have to succeed in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

One of those who agrees with my assessment is Tom Walton of Bentonville. On the day of the announcement, Walton said: "With today's announcement about the selection of Katherine Andrews to lead the new Office of Outdoor Recreation with a dedicated team, we will make Arkansas a formidable competitor in tourism, talent and industry recruitment, and of course, outdoor experiences that rival the best in the nation."

Smart young people are learning about our world-class hiking, cycling, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, birdwatching, kayaking, canoeing and other outdoor opportunities. Tom Walton and his brother Steuart are leading efforts statewide to enhance these experiences in order to set Arkansas apart from other states.

Andrews has a powerhouse board filled with Arkansas outdoors legends such as George Dunklin, Mike Mills and Bill Barnes. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has tasked the office with leading efforts to "grow the outdoor recreation economy, work with partners toward improved health outcomes, and promote awareness of the complete range of recreational experiences the state has to offer."

"Katherine is a native Arkansan and an avid participant in outdoor recreation," Hutchinson says. "These qualities combined with her experience in small business and entrepreneurship development make her a natural fit for this job."

Utah was the first state to create an office focused on the outdoor recreation economy. Arkansas was just the second Southern state to do so, following the lead of North Carolina.

"The outdoor aspect of the job intrigued me," Andrews says as we have lunch at the Capital Bar & Grill in downtown Little Rock. "I loved working at AEDC. I consider those folks family. But I became convinced that the time is right to grow the outdoor recreation economy. We want to see entrepreneurs emerge across the state. We want to be the office that connects the efforts of organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, AEDC and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission."

Andrews says that by tearing down the walls between these various entities, the vision of Tom and Steuart Walton will become reality. She says she's working to "discover the barriers to growth in this sector of our economy and then find ways to remove those barriers."

In the first four months on the job, Andrews put 3,300 miles on her car visiting with people statewide. She also looks forward to working with other states to see "what things have worked and what things have failed. We're just now starting to fully understand the huge impact of the outdoor economy on our state."

Andrews hopes the office will do an economic impact study to spot trends and identify areas of opportunity. She also wants to complete a health and wellness study that will be used to educate the public on the benefits of outdoor recreation. Another goal is a website that will allow people to search for everything from boat manufacturers to fishing guides.

"Eventually we'll have a job portal for those who want to work in this sector," Andrews says. "We also need to create an outdoor recreation business alliance. This kind of coordination could really make a difference."

A few weeks after having lunch with Andrews, I find myself at lunch on the Fayetteville square with Phil Shellhammer, director of the University of Arkansas' Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program, commonly known as GORP. The business incubator is an arm of the university's Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The program is supported by a $4.1 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

Matt Waller, dean of the UA's Sam Walton College of Business, says the grant has helped the school create "an entrepreneurial culture surrounding outdoor recreation." The program will train entrepreneurs who are focused on outdoor recreation-oriented hospitality, service and experience businesses. It also will support outdoor industry product design and development start-ups.

Shellhammer was named to head this program the same month Andrews was named to lead the state government office.

Shellhammer is an Ohio native who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He worked for companies such as Best Buy and Procter & Gamble before moving to Arkansas in 2009 to work for Sam's Club. He became vice president of the merchandising department.

In 2019, Shellhammer established two education-focused tech startups, Eksplor Gaming and Wize Computing Academy, which teaches coding.

Shellhammer says he was "drawn to help other entrepreneurs reach their goals. . . . In addition, I was attracted to the potential of stimulating significant economic impact for our region. The focus on outdoor recreation didn't hurt either since many of the activities we target fit my personal interests."

What's known as the GORP Incubator will house a small cohort of companies twice a year. These startups will engage in a structured 12-week program with training and up to $15,000 per company in funding that doesn't require the business owner to give up equity.

"This program intends to be a major catalyst to the success of these entrepreneurs and the positive economic impact they will create," Shellhammer says.

He says his true love is helping other companies achieve success. Shellhammer sees GORP as growing existing companies in Arkansas, bringing companies from other states and creating new businesses.

"We can create innovative products and services here in Arkansas that enhance the existing outdoor recreational experiences the state offers," he says. "Once people come here to experience things like our rock climbing, some will stay. That just adds to our recreational infrastructure."

He says entrepreneurs will learn of past successes in the state, such as the fact that Arkansas is the home of the bass boat.

"We're all about innovation," Shellhammer says of GORP. "We're all about taking ideas and turning those ideas into businesses. You can find incubators like we're doing in states such as Colorado and Utah, but there aren't a lot them in our part of the country."

With state government, the state's flagship university, the Walton brothers and visionaries such as Dunklin, Mills and Barnes all pulling in the same direction, Arkansas may be on the verge of a new era.

In a state where the economy once was dominated by cotton and then by attempts to land low-wage manufacturing jobs, who could have dreamed that the creeks, rivers, lakes, forests and mountains would be our economic salvation?


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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