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The Legacy of Economic Development in Arkansas

 May 04, 2020

As we embark on Economic Development Week, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) is proud to have been a part of the celebration for 65 years.

This week, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Arkansas Economic Developers and Chamber Executives will join communities throughout the state to acknowledge the positive impact economic developers have in every county within Arkansas. To celebrate Economic Development Week, I would like to pay tribute to the hardworking economic developers that have served at AEDC by taking a brief look at our organization’s history.

AEDC’s beginnings can be traced to the end of World War II when agrarian economies began to be replaced by manufacturing. During this time, Arkansas faced high population losses, high unemployment, and a deteriorating economy as many Arkansans left the state to find job opportunities elsewhere.

By the mid-1950s, the state’s government and business leaders knew that something drastic needed to be done to stabilize the economy, and in 1955, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 404 creating AEDC’s forerunner, the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC). Under the leadership of Gov. Orval Faubus and AIDC Chairman Winthrop Rockefeller, the Commission was charged to bring new industry to the state, expand existing industries, and combine labor, industry, and agriculture to raise the state’s standard of living. The original seven-member commission was later increased to 16 members, appointed by the governor for four-year terms.

The formation of the AIDC helped bridge the state’s agriculture-based economy to one focused on the growing manufacturing economy. In its early years, intensive recruitment efforts brought such industries as clothing and textiles, wood and paper products, and food processing.

AIDC located its first industry – Gay Apparels Inc in Cotter – on April 1, 1955. By the end of Chairman Rockefeller’s time at AIDC, over 600 companies had been recruited to Arkansas, creating over 90,000 new jobs. 

During his time as Chairman, Rockefeller created the “Committee of 100” and raised an additional $200,000 to supplement the $75,000 AIDC operating budget. To join, business leaders from every county in the state were asked to give $100. The money was used to create the Arkansas Industrial Development Foundation, the forerunner to today’s Arkansas Economic Development Foundation.  

Knowing that strong communities lead to economic success, Arkansas has always focused on collaboration with communities. The same act that created AIDC also provided measures to allow communities to issue bonds to finance a portion of the total costs of industrial land, improvements, buildings, and equipment. Later, the state authorized towns and counties to issue special obligation revenue bonds for securing and developing industry.

State leaders also knew that Arkansas was uniquely positioned as an ideal location to get goods to market quickly. When the AIDC was created, the state had slightly more than 10,000 miles of state highways – not nearly enough miles to support a speedy and efficient transportation network required for manufacturing. During the 1960s, AIDC was instrumental in helping to establish Arkansas’ interstate highway network and, later, the Arkansas River Navigation Project, which was the final link in providing the state with a first-class intermodal transportation system.

Now that Arkansas was quickly growing in the national manufacturing scene, the AIDC looked beyond the nation’s borders to find new opportunities. In 1974, AIDC landed its first recruitment project from overseas, with the location of Bekaert Steel in Van Buren. In 1976, an office was established in Brussels to recruit European industry to the state as well as to help export agricultural and industrial products in Europe. A similar office was established in Japan in 1986. Today, AEDC maintains offices in Germany, Japan, and China and our top export is not agriculture, but aviation and aerospace.

While the state had seen tremendous growth in the manufacturing sector, the late 1970s and early 1980s brought new challenges. In 1979, AIDC became the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to reflect more diverse economic opportunities beyond manufacturing. The name changed several more times – back to AIDC then the Arkansas Department of Economic Development and finally once again the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, a name that remains to this day.

Act 182 of 2003 established the Consolidated Incentive Act, a game-changer for AEDC. The act consolidated six previously existing incentives into one package, added new incentives for targeted businesses, and expanded opportunities for qualified businesses to earn income tax credits based on research and development expenditures. Finally, the act also promoted a regional approach to economic development by rewarding those counties that work together through a formal compact in which they all reap the benefits of newly located business and industry by sharing the new revenues that result from new locations or expansions. The act was amended in 2017 to make the state’s incentives performance-based to ensure the state’s taxpayers always receive a positive return on their investments in business and industry moving into the state

On behalf of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission – thank you to everyone on the economic development team in Arkansas: to elected officials and local economic developers, educators, and all that are involved in workforce development, to those that help businesses run smoothly and to all the job creators in Arkansas. You make Arkansas a great place to live, and it is an honor for my team and me to work with you.

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Blog post contributed by:

Mike Preston

Secretary of Commerce, Executive Director
Arkansas Economic Development Commission

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