Political strategies

At NEA Regional Forum, Leaders Discuss Growth Strategies and Airport Study

Housing, retail sector growth, quality of life, commercial air service, workforce development and retention are among the issues municipal and business leaders in Northeast Arkansas have identified as issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years.

Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston and Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Young were among the speakers at the first ‘Better Communities’ Annual Town Hall held on Wednesday, May 18. at the Red Wolf Convention Center in Jonesboro.

Talk Business & Politics, in partnership with First Security Bank, the Arkansas Department of Commerce and the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, hosted the town hall attended by more than 100 civic and business leaders from across the region.

Preston told the crowd that northeast Arkansas is generally an “easy sell” when businesses explore the possibility of setting up shop in the area, but there are issues that need to be addressed. Lack of accommodation is a major problem with the development of a regional airport that could support commercial travel. Preston revealed that a study is underway to determine the best course of action to develop a regional airport and he expects it to be completed by the end of this year.

“We have to make sure we have adequate air service. That’s been a barrier,” Preston said, noting that business travelers want easy access to their investments in the region.

Northeast Arkansas has seen rapid and explosive economic growth in recent years, and when Jonesboro Unlimited, a regional economic development organization, set a goal of creating 2,500 well-paying jobs by 2016, Young said that he expected it to take five years. He was shocked when it took half as long.

“A lot of people in the state envy what you have in this community,” Preston said.

Young said it’s rare for a company to make the final decision to locate in Jonesboro and not choose the hub city of NEA. It happened on occasion, and Young said he and his team always ask these companies why they went elsewhere. The number one problem is usually geography, he said. The production of certain products sometimes makes more logistical sense to produce in another location, he added.

Arkansas State University, the local school system, affordable utilities and land availability are among the reasons businesses want to locate in Jonesboro, Preston said. In addition to airport access and housing shortages, broadband access is another issue, but it’s an issue that affects many parts of the state.

Some companies are also concerned that eastern Arkansas sits in the vast Mississippi floodplain. Preston is always quick to note that many companies are still settling here because the settlement sites are developed to rise above possible flood levels.

Another group of speakers – Chris Barber, CEO of St. Bernards Healthcare; Christy Valentine, Head of Academic Partnerships at Hytrol; and Dr. Len Frey, Executive Vice Chancellor A-State Finance, Administration & COO – spoke about the quality of life metrics that need to be improved to attract and retain young professional workers.

Barber said there has been an effort to develop cycle and pedestrian paths. A new local tourist tax of 2% voted last year will finance a new multi-sports complex. These improvements will be vital for the retention of professional workers, he added.

“We really have to embrace the quality of the place. We have room to grow,” Valentine said.

Another benefit of the area is ASU and the health system centered in Jonesboro, Frey said. When asked what the challenges are when recruiting staff for ASU, he replied that a lagging ethnic diversity in the community and the limited number of professionals are issues they face.

When asked the same question about attracting doctors to the area, Barber said some things needed improvement. The damage from the 2020 tornado still needs to be cleaned up and rising crime rates, a problem related to overall population and economic growth, need to be addressed. Barber said Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver is taking steps to correct these issues.

Growth in the retail sector has stalled in the city since the mall was hit by the tornado in March 2020. Valentine said big-box retail will still be a big part, but it’s the small family-owned stores that define a community and grow it economically. Everything that can be done to improve the growth of this sector must be done – now.

“Now is not the time to talk. It is time to do, ”she said.