BY LEANN DILBECK –
Bringing in new business and industry to an area during a downward economy is a challenge known all too well by today’s community leaders. The Pulse recently individually asked three of the local area’s government leaders: State Representative Nate Bell, Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison, and City of Mena Mayor George McKee, what were the top three issues they faced in bringing economic development and job creation to their constituents. The areas identified were consistent and each noted how complex both the need and the issues were, compounding the need to protect the existing industries already in place.
Both Bell and Ellison said the top issue was related to the county’s lack of interstate highways, making it very isolated. It was also identified as an issue by McKee but he ranked it as third on his list. “Geographic location is more or less than 85 miles from interstate highways and passenger flights,” said Bell. As Ellison explained, “Entrepreneurs are reluctant to locate where trucking products and parts are more expensive.”
The top challenge McKee said the City of Mena faced was having not available structures and limited property, besides the Industrial Park, large enough to accommodate the specs required for a business to build that could employ potentially 300 people. McKee said he focuses on targeting retail and small business, whom he considers the backbone of a community, and cited many vacant buildings in the downtown area that are available for sale or lease. He also said he believed it was complimentary to the already well-established tourism industry. “You should never underestimate the significance of small businesses in a rural economy,” said McKee.
Both Ellison and Bell also cited the “unfriendly business climate” and heavy regulation, which can serve as barriers. “Arkansas has policies that do not encourage new business start-ups. For example, even the smallest contractors are required to have a business license. This discourages young entrepreneurs from starting small, instead they either try to work under the radar and will never develop a legitimate business or because of the red-tape and initial cost, they won’t risk failure,” said Ellison. Adding to the challenge is neighboring Texas and Oklahoma, “Our state is one of the nation’s most regulated, taxed and licensed,” said Bell. “All are barriers to business recruitment/expansion. This is exacerbated due to our proximity to Texas and Oklahoma, who do significantly better in most objective scoring of overall business environment.” The regulations, designed to protect Arkansans, ultimately costs them with slow job creation as Ellison added, “In my opinion, economic freedom comes at a cost and that is consumers should do their own due diligence and not rely on the state to decide who the consumer should do business with.”
Third on Bell’s list and second on McKee’s was the area’s lack of a sufficient workforce with the needed skills and/or post-secondary training or education required. McKee said that is another reason that Rich Mountain Community College is such a tremendous resource.
The threat of environmental regulation and litigation was the final item on Ellison’s list of barriers for job creation. “We rely heavily on tourism and we know first-hand what just a threat of trail closures does to potential business opportunity. Who would risk money on a recreation-based business when they fear at any moment an environmental group could bring suit and completely ruin them financially?” Ellison continued by explaining how an unfriendly business climate compounded with threats of litigation can literally stop businesses from considering the area even when all other factors are favorable to move here. “Another example was demonstrated south of Mena about 10 years ago, where an asphalt plant was planned. After the application was filed and the public comment period began, there were a small number of negative comments about air quality. That was enough to discourage investors who found a friendlier area to locate. An asphalt plant in our area would have been a financial bonanza for us, bring contractors and saving local governments a lot of money.”
Arkansas’ unemployment rate ranked at 7.4% at the end of December, compared to the national unemployment rate of 6.7%. As the area has seen a number of business closures, most recently a long-standing 43-year old business, new ones do eventually open; however, the need for positive sustainable business growth and job creation remains high. A responsibility that weighs heavy on the minds of government officials and business leaders. The area was built on the railroad, timber and poultry industries, and like so many other rural communities across the South, today’s leaders find themselves having to evolve from what it has known to become more competitive in an ever-changing global marketplace.