FORT SMITH — In a push to bring economic revival to a region hit with job losses, area business and civic leaders are borrowing from a model that has proven successful elsewhere in Arkansas.

The newly formed Fort Smith Regional Council is patterned after the Northwest Arkansas Council, an organization formed in the Benton-Washington county area in 1990. That group took its lead from a Little Rock-based organization, 50 for the Future, created in 1963. The model organizations have as their membership business owners and leaders as well as heads of major civic groups.

Paul Harvel, president and CEO of the Fort Smith chamber, said council members are "those in a leadership position who will be able to obligate their company for action that needs to be taken." The 24 on the group’s membership list are people who are effective in their individual positions but "have not before been put together as a group," Harvel said. "We want them to come together, to see if we can work to make Fort Smith a better place."

Harvel said the council’s area of focus will be a 50-mile radius of Arkansas’ second largest city, an area he said has a population of 425,000.

Sam T. Sicard, president and chief executive officer of First National Bank and chairman of the Fort Smith Council, said in early meetings the organization has formed task forces charged with exploring current situations with a potentially critical impact on the future of the community.

Sicard cited the need for a 12-foot navigation channel on the Arkansas River, expanding its trade capability, as "a real focus of ours." Another topic of immediate concern is promotion of expanded work force education. He said the regional development council will work a lot in conjunction with the chamber but also will work in areas the chamber cannot.

He talked of the "collective influence" the group can have in identifying and addressing issues.

Harvel said the Chamber’s work is "more short term," addressing issues of immediate concern, while the council’s focus will be on long-term solutions. He said the full council will meet quarterly, while task forces will meet and work in the interim.

Harvel was executive director for the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce for 22 years, and in that capacity worked with 50 for the Future.

One of the Little Rock group’s initial goals was working to attract new industry to Central Arkansas, looking for an economic revival in wake of the notoriety resulting from the Central High School integration crisis. Efforts included the recruitment of Jacuzzi Brothers, Orbit Valve, Armstrong Tire & Rubber, Leisure Arts and others. In its first 20 years, the group could claim a role in bringing 2,500 new jobs to the Little Rock area.

Harvel said 50 for the Future also played a role in public projects, such as promoting development of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It supported construction of Alltel (now Verizon) Arena, a multipurpose entertainment facility in North Little Rock, by pushing for a vote on a tax increase to partially fund the arena, and by helping raise private and corporate donations that went toward the project.

Sicard said the council also would reach out to the Northwest Arkansas Council to explore areas of cooperation.

Mike Malone, president and chief executive officer for the Northwest Arkansas Council, said members of the two groups have met on several occasions. He said topics have ranged from organization and procedures to issues that might be of interest to both groups.

"Obviously infrastructure for a port and Arkansas River development has great implications for both areas, as does expansion of Interstate 49 in both directions, ours to the Missouri line and Fort Smith’s to the south," Malone said. "We’re both going to benefit from I-49 completion."

Malone also sees room for cooperation in promoting higher education, as the entire state suffers the effects of a college completion rate that is lower than the national average.

Malone said the Northwest Arkansas Council is currently implementing its Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy. The strategy, which began in January 2011, is a blueprint for growth over the next decade and the steps the area needs to take as a region.

He said the not-for-profit operation currently has a staff of seven, operating out of an office in Springdale, and about 90 members. From that group, a 13-member executive committee is chosen. Dues, assessed on a sliding scale, are pooled with grant funds and fees for contract services to fund the council. He put the council’s current annual budget at around $2 million.

The council was organized at a time when Northwest Arkansas was positioning itself for major expansion. Malone said area leaders, recognizing the need to work together on common agenda items, decided to pool resources and work to foster a regional spirit among a group of towns and communities that had for generations operated independently.

"In a sense, they became one region working together," he said.

Charter members of the group included corporate luminaries such as Sam Walton, J.B. Hunt and Don Tyson. Early undertakings of the council included promoting development of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, pushing for highway expansion, including Interstate 540 and U.S. 412, and increasing the capacity of area water supplies and systems.

"It has all been accomplished through the lens of making sure Northwest Arkansas remains competitive as a region," said Malone, adding the ultimate goal of the council is "to create a good place to live, work and raise families."

While regionalism is key, Malone said a measure of autonomy is also necessary. He said the council has membership in each of five chambers of commerce in its area and regularly meets with representatives.

"Some issues make more sense being worked on by a regional organization. On some others it makes better sense for work by locals. We help the local chambers when they need it," he said. "It’s a great partnership."

Malone said he is optimistic of the success of the Fort Smith Regional Council and looks to the possibility of cooperating on some regional issues. Among the potential benefits of cooperation, he said, is the "common voice on legislative issues" that the partnership could give the entire region in decision-making in Little Rock.


Rusty Garrett writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith.


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