Changing of the Guard

The Roles of Chambers and Downtown Associations in a Placebased Economy

By Dwain Hebda

Communities across Arkansas are discovering place building as an effective strategy for urban renewal, business attraction and workforce retention. Once thought of as community window-dressing emphasizing the nice over the necessary, place building's emphasis on quality of life and community amenities is an increasingly valuable chip in the high-stakes drive for economic growth.

"Place building is an economic development strategy in which communities make the most of what they’ve already got and highlight it," said Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. "A community can’t pretend to be something it’s not but instead should work to attract businesses and people that will appreciate its existing character."

"While it’s imperative to have a good industrial park and shovel-ready sites for building and housing companies, it’s also important to build up a community by emphasizing what makes it unique and using that as a competitive advantage."

Place building, while relatively new, has dramatically changed the way chambers and other entities approach economic development. Utilizing a larger portion of the time, energy and resources traditionally spent directly on new business recruitment, place building channels that into making community amenities so appealing workers, entrepreneurs and companies aspire to locate there.

Put another way, it shifts cities' mentality from "If you come, we will build it," to "If we build it, they will come."

"Place building is a very different strategy than what would be considered the more traditional approach, which is just offer cheap land, cheap utilities, offer incentives, that type of thing. Place building is all about quality of life," said Caleb McMahon, director of economic development for the Jefferson County Alliance.

"What's happened here, for example, is we've been very successful in bringing business to the area in manufacturing, warehousing, distribution. The issue is, the people taking these jobs are from Little Rock or Sheridan and they move to bedroom communities or just commute here because we have quality of life issues."

McMahon said improvement efforts there, as in other communities, follow the shift in attitude among a large portion of today's workforce.

"I'm technically a Millennial but I'm an old one, so I've always gone where my career takes me. It's been more about the job," he said. "But the trend now is, people pick where they want to live and then they take a job when they get there. That’s where place building comes in."

Communities that have been successful in place building leverage certain elements inherent to that location to build their brand around. A nearby mountain or other natural features, for instance, or a man-made attraction such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville are good anchors for such a strategy.

"Seven years ago, when Crystal Bridges opened, that provided the real catalyst to begin to enhance quality of place," said Graham Cobb, president and CEO of Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce. "It was a real shot in the arm as far as place goes, because overnight we become one of the top five destinations for arts."

However, Cobb quickly added the presence of a cornerstone attraction doesn't in and of itself define quality of place.

"We also had to look at what that meant in our overall story. What do we want to go and do? What do we want to be? Who do we want to be? Who do we need here to help us become that and how do we attract them? We now are in the process of developing the resources to tie all of it together and present it in a way that will make them want to be here."

For those communities lacking built-in anchors and who must create experiences and attractions, place building often entails downtown neighborhood renewal, historic area designation or creating pockets of expertise such as for entrepreneurs.

But sometimes, as Brad Lacy, president and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce noted, deficiencies of place can be something far less conspicuous.

"I think many times communities need a wake-up call to understand there are deficiencies that are beyond what they currently understand," he said. "For us, that was 1998 when [database marketing giant] Acxiom moved their corporate headquarters to Little Rock."

"It almost was counter-intuitive with what was going on in the community because the '90s were a decade of astronomical growth here. The city grew 63 percent in that decade, everything appeared to be great. But we weren’t growing the right way to support a company like [Axciom]."

Lacy said the loss of the company, which has since returned to Conway, boiled down to something that trumped all the incentives, green spaces and revitalization the city could come up with—Faulkner County was dry.

"We didn’t realize that it was quality of place issue, that wasn’t really a phrase back then," Lacy said. "But it was the stark reality of what was happening. How do you get people to stay downtown past 5 p.m. or how do you expand your restaurant scene; the common denominator on all of it was changing liquor laws. Restaurants aren’t going to invest to transform some of these buildings without having that. Once that changed, downtown changed dramatically."

In some areas of the state, entities have done a good job knitting together various community stakeholders to adopt strategies across a wider area. Such is the case in northwest Arkansas where cooperation among communities in relatively close proximity has yielded benefits for all.


"The leaders here have bought in to this idea of taking a regional approach, identifying priorities that will impact and benefit the region and that rising tide lifts all boats," said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. "If a business were to come here, Fayetteville and Springdale might put their best foot forward, but they really don’t care necessarily where the business locates because it’s going to benefit everyone."


In the hyper-competitive world of economic development, such magnanimous attitudes can seem far-fetched. In northwest Arkansas's case, however, landslide population growth by non-natives tends to blunt homegrown rivalries.

"You’ll find 56 percent of the people here are not from northwest Arkansas. And most of those people don’t really care if it’s Fayetteville or Springdale or Rogers, they’re regionally focused," Peacock said. "We’re promoting a regional brand that’s not tied to what city you’re in, what high school you go to and who you root for on Friday night. That's the least of our concerns at the council and I think most regional leaders agree with that."

Another element that place building has changed for chambers of commerce has been the breadth of vision with which they view their areas of responsibility.

"Having a holistic economic development strategy is vitally important today as opposed to 15, 20, maybe even 10 years ago," said Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of Little Rock Regional Chamber. "Today, it's more important to focus on why this would be a good place for people to come, or giving more people who are here an opportunity to stay and grow."

"That makes place making a priority in almost everything we do because if it isn't good for the community, if it isn't good for the economy, if it isn't good for the environment, if it isn't good for the whole spectrum of Little Rock, then long term, it won't be sustainable or successful."

Chesshir said unlike previous eras, the question of "why" takes on paramount significance and resources are proportionately expended to answer that question across a variety of demographics.

"Over the last 10 years, we've focused on trying to make Little Rock a choice," he said. "Whether that be from a public education perspective, an entertainment perspective or from a business location perspective, all of that really revolves around why somebody would choose to live in this city and this region and what do others have that we don’t that we can add to make us more competitive."

Such answers don't come in a vacuum; experts say place building strategies thrive on ample grist of ideas and input from which to grind community goals and objectives. In the effort to improve the quality of place, many communities undergo formal planning processes utilizing as much community input as can practically be gained. A growing number have even formed separate organizations, such as the two-year-old Jonesboro Unlimited, to carry out executables rather than layering it over existing organizations' workloads.

"Often times a plan in and of itself is fine, but a plan that’s implemented is really where the work is and where the benefit and payoff is," said Mark Young, president of Jonesboro Unlimited and Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Jonesboro Unlimited has really helped us put our plan in motion and really focus on implementation. It's provided us another tool, another level of resources, that otherwise we would not have had to get to the challenging work of growing our economy and focusing on key areas."

Young said coordination is key to making Jonesboro's strategy work. A business need such as workforce development or talent retention might have three or four task forces at work in the community, plus individual companies' recruitment initiatives. Groups like Jonesboro Unlimited help align these efforts and provide common ground for various stakeholders, which is not only more efficient but holds everyone accountable to moving initiatives forward as a whole.

"I think that is a good way to do things; we've had success, we anticipate we'll have continued success," Young said. "But we also know that it never stops. A vibrant community is one that always looks forward and tries to continue to improve its quality of life for its citizens and its future citizens. That’s what we're intent on doing as well."