The New Harvest
Arkansas Communities Evolve as Industry Hubs
By DWAIN HEBDA
On the Grand Prairie of the Arkansas Delta, just an hour east of the center of Little Rock, rice is king. Anyone who doubts that need only glance at the miles of flat, terraced ground that’s everywhere in and around places like Stuttgart. Here, rice is as much an identity as a business and grain silos dwarf the otherwise-tallest structures in town.
Arkansas and agriculture have walked hand in hand since its establishment as a territory, an event which celebrates its bicentennial this year. And while Arkansas rice is still dominant on a national and international scale, other farmland across the state has since given way to settlement, development and growth. And the communities born and bred on cotton and soybeans now find themselves at a crossroads of developing new industries and attracting workers with new skill sets.
Granted, agriculture still represents a major slice of the state’s economy—$16 billion worth annually, according to Arkansas Farm Bureau—but there’s no denying the corporate winds of change that have swept through The Natural State. And as it does, city leaders are adjusting to take advantage of this new, bountiful harvest with the appropriate amenities and services.
LITTLE ROCK/NORTH LITTLE ROCK
Industry Hub: Tech/startups
Through the massive, gleaming windows of the Little Rock Tech Center lobby, Brent Birch’s vista is one of change and development. Throughout the original grid, downtown is undergoing a rebirth with some of the city’s oldest buildings gussied up as apartments, office space and restaurants featuring sidewalk dining. All sit within an easy stroll or bike ride from where Birch, the center’s director, is standing.
But there’s more than a Millennial playground here in these improvements; in fact, Birch sees the very grist for the company’s tech community.
“What Little Rock has done is realized that for our city to be strong, our downtown has to be strong,” he said. “The transformation that we made with downtown Little Rock is pretty remarkable. I worked down here when I got out of college in the early 1990s and this is not the same downtown. And then I worked 14 years for a company on Second and Markham, and even in the five short years since I left there, this is not the same downtown.
“For us to take that project head-on and bring some life back to downtown has been a big, big catalyst for the tech community specifically, because this is where they want to be. They don’t want to be isolated in a bank tower. They don’t want to be out in West Little Rock by themselves somewhere. They want to be in the hub of activity.”
There’s more than just entertainment and socialization for the tech entrepreneur downtown these days as the Tech Park itself attests, teeming with entrepreneurs from all over the world. Ride the elevator up a floor with two software engineers deciphering a new app and you’ll ride it back down with a 20-something headed out to make a pitch to investors. It happens here every day.
“All of this bubbling up, which previously ran in some degree in their own little silos, has really come a long way to be more collaborative,” Birch said. “Putting a roof over things in the Tech Park gives even the ones that aren’t in the building the opportunity to come here and interact and share experiences and learn from each other.”
That collaborative spirit fords the Arkansas River over into North Little Rock where the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub also plugs into the process. It’s a very different segment of the maker crowd here, populated as much by children and youths as the fair sampling of adult entrepreneurs, but a key element of the process nonetheless.
“One aspect for the support for this larger ecosystem is our ability to spark interest early on,” said Dr. Chris Jones, executive director. “Our sweet spot is coming together at that very early stage and pulling the right resources together.”
There was a time when such entities on either side of the river wouldn’t have much to say to one another, each hoarding talent, resources and economic development for themselves. Today, by contrast, the mantra Collaborate or Die is screamed from the rooftops.
“I believe the only way to take full advantage of the talent in this state and those interested in coming to this state is to partner and work together,” Jones said. “We will send folks over their way because they are better at doing some things than we are. And they send folks our way because we’re better at some things than they are.”
In seeding STEAM entrepreneurship within the community, the Innovation Hub has established a priority of reaching underserved neighborhoods and populations. The organization’s well-used mobile unit is extremely handy in this pursuit, but much more work remains.
“We have already touched a little over 2,000 individuals—right at 1,000 students— in the five months since we hit the ground running,” Jones said. “While I am pleased with the work we have done, I am not even close to being satisfied given the amount of work that needs to be done. I’ve got to tell you, I will not ever be satisfied until everyone has the sort of access they need to reach their full potential.”
Industry Hub: Food tech
It’s not necessarily a surprise that food tech would emerge as an industry hub in the quaint Northwest Arkansas community of Springdale. After all, the behemoth Tyson Foods started right here and still employs thousands all over the state and beyond.
What is surprising is the progressive attitude of Springdale residents in a state that’s not always been known for it. But therein lies the secret of the community’s growth and success, said Bill Rogers, vice president of communications and special projects for the Springdale Chamber of Commerce.
“If you want to back up 50,000 feet in terms of why Springdale and why a company like Tyson and those that support Tyson are able to flourish, note that Northwest Arkansas just moved up from fifth place to fourth place in the annual U.S. News and World Report Best Places to Live ranking,” he said.
“Our citizens have time and time again supported public investment that speaks directly to quality of life and quality of place. A $200 million bond issue was approved recently, and this is the third one of these that we’ve done. We are continuing to build new street infrastructure, new public courts facility, new fire stations, new parks.”
Like every community up here, Springdale is growing at breakneck speed and the city has been strategic in the kinds of amenities it provides to get the most bang for its buck. Education is one prime outcome of this thinking, be it the excellent public school system or the $95 million, 285,000-square-foot Tyson Foods Discovery Center, a world-class industrial training facility and office complex completed in 2007.
The city’s downtown, meanwhile, has also taken steps to keep up with the demands of the modern workforce. And well that it should, considering the substantial investment neighboring Rogers, Bentonville and Fayetteville are also making in their quality of place. But the improvements made here aren’t done solely to keep up with the Joneses. It’s more like a sports team where each player is held accountable by teammates to do their job.
“The strength, I think, is in the vision that the region has for itself and the cooperativeness and the hard work that’s going on every single day,” said Jill Dabbs, executive director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance. “There are people working so hard towards that vision, working with the businesses, the chambers of commerce, the local governments. I mean really just pulling hard to get to where they’ve determined they’re going.”
“The challenge is things are happening really fast, but there’s a feeling of we’re not getting there fast enough, we’re not doing enough. No matter what zip code we live in, we all need to get out once in a while to get a realistic perspective of the world and what’s going on. It helps you find your perspective and motivates you to continue to work hard towards that.”
Dabbs praised local leadership for their effectiveness in selling amenities such as mountain bike trails to taxpayers. She said those same trails are today a powerful draw to the area both for tourists and for relocators.
“I think people understand that place-building matters and the food industry, the music industry, the art industry, all of those things are really what’s leading in a lot of these areas,” she said. “They’re leading with those things in attracting the next big industry. The industries are following those things because that’s where the talent wants to be.”
Industry Hub: Wellness
Like all health care administrators Chris Barber, president and CEO of St. Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro has had to deal with unparalleled change of late. Health care reform, reduction in government reimbursement and a steadily growing demand for services makes his job more complicated than it’s ever been.
So when he expresses more optimism than ever for the health system’s future, you immediately get the picture of how effectively Jonesboro has been nurturing the local business environment.
“From the public sector to the private sector, you see individuals willing to invest in things they believe in,” he said. “They want to create something bigger and better than we can do on our own, and that spirit of cooperation in this community has existed for decades. And now, we have a new generation of leaders that continue to pick up the baton and move that forward.
“I’ve been with St. Bernards for 27 years and I’ve been in this role for 10. I’m more excited today than I’ve ever been on the promise of the future, both of Jonesboro and for our organization.”
St. Bernards has capitalized on that optimistic outlook in recent years by expanding services, adding staff and broadening its physical footprint. The latest project, a $140 million expansion, will enhance the organization’s cancer and heart care centers. And at a time when other health care entities are slowing expansion for want of labor, Barber said St. Bernards is moving forth with confidence, thanks to a raft of improvements made within the local community.
“If we’re recruiting physicians to the community, and if we can get them to visit Jonesboro, this community can sell itself for what it has to offer,” he said.
One advantage Barber points to is the presence of Arkansas State University and the many ways the school partners with the business community. In health care alone, ASU has stepped up to open a medical school and has developed a nursing program that can compete with any in the region. Such collaboration is a major reason why companies choose to remain in or relocate to Jonesboro.
“We certainly benefit from Arkansas State University being here,” said Mark Young, head of both the Chamber of Commerce and its economic development entity Jonesboro Unlimited. “They have a tremendous impact on the workforce in our community and in developing the talent that we need to continue to be successful.
“In addition to that, other benefits related to the university really stem from a quality of life standpoint, whether it’s an orchestra or concerts or Division I athletics.”
Young said the challenges for the future are infrastructural, namely in the transportation sector. He also said the city’s strategic plan calls for continued improvement in business attraction, labor recruitment and quality of life. It’s a cycle that never ends.
“If you look at our population growth and how our community has grown over the years, all of that has been very positive,” he said. “To stay on the front edge of that, we have made and will continue to make improvements and changes. I think we’re doing a really good job with it, but that never stops. We continue to look forward and work hard to make Jonesboro better. We can’t take success for granted.”
Industry Hub: Retail
To say that retail looms large in Northwest Arkansas is a massive understatement, given Walmart came from around these parts. The discount behemoth is one reason for the area’s growth, drawing in not only thousands of employees, but thousands of people who make their living as vendors and affiliates.
Population growth of this sort demands new development concepts, projects like The District designed by SCM Architects and developed by Whisinvest Realty.
“The District is a true mixed-use development in a more urban, pedestrian-friendly landscape,” said John Connell, principal with SCM. “It is designed to plug into the existing area to promote walking not only within the development but also to venues such as The AMP, Top Golf and restaurants outside of the development.”
The District will provide this access through a series of planned centers of activity, what Connell described as “nodes of interest and placemaking” that balances functions of residential, commercial and attraction spaces.
“We are creating a long-lasting sense of place where one wants to live, work and play all in the same area,” Connell said. “To do that, we want to create an environment that sparks the interest of those who live elsewhere to want to come and visit, stay for an evening, a day or even a long weekend. That is the balance that needs to occur between pro forma, vision and the market, a sort of dance between the owner and architect.”
The District will also leverage the Razorback Regional Greenway as a primary feature. While a departure in design thinking compared to earlier developments, it’s in step with what today’s homebuyer and business owner values in a location.
“The entire 32 miles of the Razorback Greenway Trail runs south of Fayetteville to north of Bella Vista,” said Burke Larkin, Whisinvest senior vice president. “Part of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s bicycle healthy living impact on Northwest Arkansas is, if your house is within half a mile of the Northwest Arkansas Greenway Trail, no matter what size your home or condo or townhouse is, that home is worth $15,000 to $20,000 more than anything outside of that,”
Jeff Maxwell, head of Whisinvest’s development projects, said cooperation from city hall is something that cannot be overstated in the success of The District. He praised officials for sharing the company’s desire to bring something truly unique to the area.
“It’s been a good process,” he said. “Rogers has a very progressive planning director and a new ordinance recently passed that is very favorable to this type of development. I think they like working with developers that don’t want to do the type of center that we would have done 20 years ago.
“You hear a lot of talk about mixed-use developments, but I don’t think there’s one here that is the scale that we’re trying to do. We think it’s time for that kind of project.”