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Arkansas rising

by Rex Nelson | October 23, 2022 at 2:04 a.m.

Positive economic trends are coming together simultaneously in various parts of the state. They point to the potential for a golden era in Arkansas if this state's government, business and civic leaders can make the right moves during the next five years.

That's a big "if," especially given Arkansas' history of shooting itself in the foot.

Students of Arkansas history can list the stupid decisions and man-made disasters that held this state back for almost 200 years. There was the decision to secede from the Union in 1861. With large areas covered by mountains and few slaveholders in those hills, Arkansas should have been a border state like Missouri or Kentucky.

There was Gov. Orval Faubus' fateful decision to block nine Black children from entering Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1957. The Central desegregation crisis became the biggest news story in the world that year and set economic development back for decades.

I could go on. To take advantage of this rare convergence of economic trends, we must get certain things right.

For starters, we must elect a higher quality of people to public office. The kind of local leaders who once ran for office no longer want to be part of a political arena that's mean, petty and often just plain silly. When these people sit on the sidelines, fringe characters get elected.

I'm not just talking about the Arkansas Legislature, where the overall quality is the lowest in my lifetime. I'm also talking about city councils, county quorum courts, and school boards.

The poor quality of elected officials could be the Achilles heel that prevents us from taking full advantage of this convergence. Good people must get off the sidelines and run. Good people who don't run must financially support qualified candidates. We must get this right.

We must realize that broadband access is to rural Arkansas in this century what electricity was in the previous century. It's absolutely essential if rural Arkansas is to survive.

We must realize that education is no longer just K-12. It's Pre-K through 14 or 16. On the front end, we must invest more tax dollars in pre-kindergarten programs. On the back end, we must stop starving higher education. We're never going to significantly increase the per capita income of Arkansans until we do this. We must get education right. There's no greater priority for state government.

Community leaders must realize that economic development in the 21st century is no longer solely about attracting manufacturing plants. It's about attracting talented people. And you do that with cycling and hiking trails, parks, vibrant downtowns, quality restaurants and additional quality-of-life amenities. Those communities that plan to survive in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century will be the ones that get this right.

The opportunity for a new Arkansas Era is there. Here are the emerging megatrends working in our state's favor:

No end in sight to the northwest Arkansas boom

Walmart is completing a corporate campus the likes of which this part of the country has never seen. Crystal Bridges is expanding. A medical school is on the way, and Alice Walton will see to it that it's one of the top schools in the country. The University of Arkansas continues to grow. The business startup scene is hot. Tens of millions of dollars are being spent on quality-of-life assets such as mountain biking trails.

A think tank (Heartland Forward) calls northwest Arkansas home. The food scene in the region is exploding, drawing national and international attention. A friend who grew up in southeast Arkansas and now lives in Washington, D.C., recently came back for a Razorback football game. He was amazed at what he saw. Not one for exaggeration, he told me: "This really is becoming the best place to live in the country."

Central Arkansas becomes a logistics and financial hub

When Amazon built enormous facilities at the Port of Little Rock and in North Little Rock, it sent a strong message to other companies. Now, Lowe's, Dollar General and Tractor Supply are building large distribution centers. There are thousands of jobs that weren't here two years ago. And more huge distribution facilities likely are on the way.

Meanwhile, financial institutions such as Bank OZK and Simmons Bank are transforming Little Rock into a regional banking hub with hundreds of high-paying jobs. There are other banks making their presence felt. Go to the intersection of Chenal and Rahling in west Little Rock and look at the facilities being built by First Community Bank and Bancorp South. No one could have predicted this kind of financial-sector growth a decade ago. It's amazing to watch.

The steel industry grows in northeast Arkansas

In January, U.S. Steel Corp. (which earlier purchased Big River Steel near Osceola) said it will locate a $3 billion mill in the area, creating 900 jobs with an average pay of more than $100,000. It will be the largest private capital investment in Arkansas history and the most advanced steel mill ever constructed. When it's up and running, Mississippi County will produce more steel than any other county in America.

There will be four major steel mills operating in the county, along with dozens of subsidiary companies. The Mississippi County steel boom comes in addition to the ongoing economic boom in the nearby Jonesboro-Paragould corridor that includes sectors ranging from manufacturing and education to health care and retailing. Arkansas State University will continue to grow, especially with the hiring of Todd Shields as chancellor. Those who know Shields describe him as an academic superstar.

The Golden Triangle of Camden, Magnolia and El Dorado takes on new life

There's rapid growth in the defense industry, which already employs about 3,000 people near Camden. Companies with facilities there are replenishing stocks of weapons that have been used to help Ukraine in its war with Russia. Hundreds of more employees are needed immediately. Defense experts say the trend of countries building up their stocks of armaments could last for years.

In El Dorado, there's the potential of lithium being extracted from brine for electric vehicle batteries. I'm told that if these efforts are successful, it could equal the oil boom of the 1920s. The potential is there for the Golden Triangle to play a key role in both the country's energy and defense strategies.

In Magnolia, there's the growth of Southern Arkansas University at a time when many college and universities are struggling. SAU announced that it has a record enrollment of 5,094 this fall, a 15 percent increase from a year earlier. Retention rates are also trending up.

The fighter jets come to Fort Smith

The U.S. Air Force has selected Ebbing Air National Guard Base as the preferred location for a training center for foreign pilots of F-35s and F-16s. Rob Ator, a retired Air Force colonel who now serves as director of military affairs for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said: "This is like getting a 2,000-job project. This is huge. This is like putting a Nissan manufacturing plant in the middle of Fort Smith."

Ator said it will be an "enduring mission" that could last 30 years or more. Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, calls it "an absolute game changer for Fort Smith." U.S. allies such as Singapore, Switzerland and Germany will now train their pilots in Arkansas.

The economic developments aren't taking place in just one area. They're in west Arkansas, east Arkansas, south Arkansas and central Arkansas.

Will we capitalize on this unique moment in our state's history? Or will we mess it up, just as Arkansans have so often done in the past?

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

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