Positive economic trends are coming together simultaneously in different parts of the state. They point to the potential for a Golden Age in Arkansas if government, business and municipal leaders in this state can make the right decisions over the next five years.
That’s a big “if,” especially given Arkansas’ history of shooting itself in the foot.
Arkansas history students can list the stupid decisions and man-made disasters that have held this state back for nearly 200 years. There was the decision to secede from the Union in 1861. With vast areas covered in mountains and few slaves in those hills, Arkansas should have been a border state like Missouri or Kentucky.
There was Governor Orval Faubus’ fateful decision to bar nine black children from entering Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1957. The central desegregation crisis became the biggest news in the world that year and retarded economic development for decades.
I could go on. To take advantage of this rare convergence of economic trends, we need to do a few things right.
For starters, we need to elect a better quality of people to public office. The kind of local leaders who once ran for office no longer want to be part of a mean, mean-spirited, and often just plain dumb political arena. When these people sit on the sidelines, fringe characters are elected.
I’m not just talking about the Arkansas Legislature, where the overall quality is the lowest in my life. I am also talking about municipal 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 have to leave the sideline and run. Good people who don’t show up should support qualified candidates financially. We have to do it right.
We need to realize that broadband access is to rural Arkansas of this century what electricity was to the century before. This is absolutely essential if rural Arkansas is to survive.
We need to realize that education is no longer just K-12. It’s kindergarten to 14th or 16th grade. Initially, we need to invest more taxpayers’ money in pre-kindergarten programs. Ultimately, we must stop starving higher education. We are never going to significantly increase the per capita income of the Arkansans until we do this. We have to educate well. There is no higher priority for the state government.
Community leaders must realize that economic development in the 21st century is no longer just about attracting manufacturing plants. It’s about attracting talented people. And you do it with biking and hiking trails, parks, vibrant downtowns, quality restaurants, and added quality-of-life amenities. Communities that plan to survive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century will be the ones that will.
The opportunity for a new era of Arkansas is here. Here are the emerging megatrends working in favor of our state:
No end in sight to Northwest Arkansas boom
Walmart is completing a corporate campus like this part of the country has never seen. Crystal Bridges is expanding. A medical school is on the way and Alice Walton will ensure that it is one of the best schools in the country. The University of Arkansas continues to grow. The business start-up scene is hot. Tens of millions of dollars are spent on quality of life assets such as mountain bike trails.
A think tank (Heartland Forward) inhabits northwest Arkansas. The region’s food scene is exploding, attracting national and international attention. A friend who grew up in southeast Arkansas and now lives in Washington, DC, recently returned for a Razorback football game. He was amazed at what he saw. Not one to exaggerate, he told me: “It really is becoming the best place to live in the countryside.
Central Arkansas becomes a logistics and financial hub
When Amazon built huge facilities at the Port of Little Rock and North Little Rock, it sent a strong message to other businesses. Today, Lowe’s, Dollar General and Tractor Supply are building large distribution centers. There are thousands of jobs that did not exist two years ago. And other major distribution facilities are likely on the way.
Meanwhile, financial institutions such as Bank OZK and Simmons Bank are transforming Little Rock into a regional banking center with hundreds of high-paying jobs. Other banks are making their presence felt. Go to the intersection of Chenal and Rahling west of Little Rock and watch the facilities being built by First Community Bank and Bancorp South. No one could have predicted this kind of growth in the financial sector ten years ago. It’s amazing to watch.
Steel Industry Grows in Northeast Arkansas
In January, US Steel Corp. (which previously bought Big River Steel near Osceola) announced it would locate a $3 billion plant in the area, creating 900 jobs with an average salary of more than $100,000. It will be the largest private capital investment in Arkansas history and the most advanced steel mill ever built. When operational, Mississippi County will produce more steel than any other county in America.
There will be four major steel mills operating in the county, as well as dozens of subsidiary companies. The steel boom in Mississippi County adds to the ongoing economic boom in the nearby Jonesboro-Paragould corridor that includes sectors ranging from manufacturing and education to health care and retail. Arkansas State University will continue to grow, including 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 is rapid growth in the defense industry, which already employs around 3,000 people near Camden. Companies with facilities there are replenishing stockpiles of weapons that were used to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia. Hundreds of additional employees are needed immediately. Defense experts say the trend for countries to build up their stockpiles of armaments could last for years.
At El Dorado, there is potential to extract lithium from brine for electric vehicle batteries. I am 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 the country’s energy and defense strategies.
In Magnolia is the growth of Southern Arkansas University at a time when many colleges and universities are struggling. SAU announced that it had a record number of registrations of 5,094 this fall, a 15% increase over the previous year. Retention rates are also on the rise.
Fighter planes arrive at Fort Smith
The US Air Force has chosen Ebbing Air National Guard Base as the preferred location for a training facility for foreign F-35 and F-16 pilots. Rob Ator, a retired Air Force colonel who is now director of military affairs for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said, “It’s like getting a 2,000 job project. It’s It’s like putting a Nissan manufacturing plant in the middle of Fort Smith.
Ator said it would 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 him “an absolute game changer for Fort Smith.” US allies such as Singapore, Switzerland and Germany will now train their pilots in Arkansas.
Economic developments do not take place in one area. They are in West Arkansas, East Arkansas, South Arkansas, and Central Arkansas.
Are we going to capitalize on this unique moment in the history of our state? Or are we going to screw it up, as the Arkansans have so often done in the past?
Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.