1.800.ARKANSAS

Arkansas Inc. Podcast: Economic Development Week 2022

 May 09, 2022
In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, three economic developers from around Arkansas discuss economic development, significant projects in their communities, and the opportunities that their communities provide for businesses. The guests for this Economic Development Week episode include Allison Thompson, President and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, AR; Buck Layne, President and CEO of the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce; and Crystal Johnson, CEO of the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

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TRANSCRIPT

Crystal Johnson:

This is Crystal Johnson, CEO at the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Buck Layne:

This is Buck Layne, President and CEO of the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Allison Thompson:

This is Allison Thompson, President and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, Arkansas, and you're listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Narrator:

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Clint O'Neal:

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. My name is Clint O'Neal. I serve as deputy director for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. We are publishing this podcast at the beginning of Economic Development Week, which is May 9th through 13th this year, as recognized by the International Economic Development Council. The IEDC created Economic Development Week in 2016 to increase awareness of local programs that create jobs, advance career development opportunities and improve the quality of life in communities everywhere. For the past two years in recognition of Economic Development Week, I've interviewed economic developers from around the state of Arkansas. The conversations have been enlightening and interesting. So we're excited to continue the tradition.

Clint O'Neal:

Today I'm joined by three of the top economic development leaders in Arkansas. Buck Layne is the president and CEO of the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce. Allison Thompson serves as president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, Arkansas and Crystal Johnson serves as CEO of the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce. Allison, Buck, Crystal, welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Buck Layne:

Thank you.

Allison Thompson:

Thanks.

Clint O'Neal:

So we have Buck and Allison joining us in studio today. Crystal calling in, I appreciate you joining us today. Has anyone ever been on a podcast before?

Buck Layne:

No.

Allison Thompson:

I have not.

Clint O'Neal:

Okay.

Crystal Johnson:

No, this is my first time.

Clint O'Neal:

All right, first time. It's going to be a good one.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, let's dive in by talking about your story, personal story of economic development. Allison, let's start with you, your original career plan, and then what led you into the field of economic development if it was different than the original plan?

Allison Thompson:

Well, my original career plan was corrections. I started in juvenile corrections after getting my criminal justice degree from TCU. I learned about economic development at the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, and from doing my graduate work in urban affairs. And I just loved it from day one and got really excited about it. So that was my career change.

Clint O'Neal:

That's great. Buck, how about you?

Buck Layne:

Well, I started out in manufacturing in Jonesboro and worked there for about 12 years and moved to Searcy in a manufacturing facility there for about 18 months and the plant closed. And I had an opportunity to seek employment elsewhere and an available job came open at the Chamber of Commerce and I applied and because of my background in manufacturing, they thought I might be able to help them with their economic development efforts and working with their existing business and industry. So it's been a great ride and I've enjoyed it all the time.

Clint O'Neal:

Thanks Buck. Crystal, tell us a little bit about your story.

Crystal Johnson:

Sure, I'd love to.

Crystal Johnson:

Well, my background was in sales and marketing. So when we moved to Batesville from Fayetteville, the community really looked a lot different at that time. There were not a lot of options in that career field. So I started a promotional products company knowing that really I could pick that up and it could move along with us when we got our next travel assignment. So the goal was to be in Independence County for two years. That's been nearly 20 years ago now, but we fell in love with the community, decided to do our best to get engaged and see if we could help make a positive difference. Really had no idea at the time, but my sales and marketing background has just been a huge benefit to my career in chamber community and economic development work now for the past 13 years.

Clint O'Neal:

That's great. Crystal, let's stick with you and talk a little bit about the organizations that you each lead. So if we were to ask everybody for a definition of economic development, it would be different even among economic developers, but tell us a little bit about what your organization values and focuses on.

Crystal Johnson:

Well, like you said, every chamber looks different. Every economic development group has a different focus or mission, but ours is very much community focused. So we have a community strategic plan that really guides our work. So we get the opportunity to take the vision from the community and then make that come to reality with community support and engagement. So I would say that really our focus is on community development, that's at the core. And then of course, everything that comes along with economic development, workforce, housing, childcare, that all obviously plays a role in healthy communities.

Clint O'Neal:

That's great. Buck, tell us a little bit about Searcy.

Buck Layne:

Searcy's a great town. We're 50 miles located away from Little Rock, but a little more specific, what our focus has been on business retention and attraction, and then the community development/quality of life effort that Crystal alluded to there. We have a great base of industrial companies, as well as retail and commercial. We work very closely with them. One of the challenges we have is our workforce as with most companies and most communities in our state and our nation at this time.

Clint O'Neal:

Allison, Jefferson County.

Allison Thompson:

Well, I love our arrangement. So we are economic development and the chamber. On the economic development side, our initiatives are focused on primary jobs. Industrial, we have a couple industrial parks and we're wanting to fill and grow those parks, but also on the retaining the businesses we already have and helping them to grow. And that's where your chamber side comes into that when they're getting out there visiting, they're doing programs, they're initiating things that the businesses need, but on the economic development side, it is all about those primary jobs and growing those jobs in the community.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. Well, let's dive into economic development projects or achievements that you're most proud of. Buck, I'll start with you. What's one project or organizational achievement that has come together in your community recently. Tell us a little bit about the backstory on that.

Buck Layne:

Thank you very much. We've been very blessed. We have a company called Bryce Corporation in our community. They employ about 450 people. And in mid-January we found out there was an opportunity to work with them for an expansion and retention program in our community. There was a competition from another state. Their corporate headquarters is in Mississippi and they made us aware that it was a competitive situation, and that if Searcy really was interested, we need to put our best foot forward. We contacted the AEDC. You guys were great. You came to the table immediately. You helped us, long story short, last, I guess about 10 days ago now, an announcement was made that the company's going to add 142 jobs and invest $80 million in our community with new equipment and buildings and things like that. So we're extremely excited about that. Just want to thank everybody that was involved. There's a number of people that were involved.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, Buck, tell us a little bit more about that. We'll go into talking about economic development as a team sport, but who was at the table there making a project like that happen?

Buck Layne:

There were several people, as I mentioned, we had a local gentleman by the name of Rennie Rutledge representing the financial portion of it. We had our mayor there. We had corporate people from Bryce. We had your group there. We had White River Planning and Development District there as well. We had bond council, a number of people.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. Well, Allison, let me give you the opportunity to talk about an organizational achievement, something great that's gone on in the community or a project that you're proud of.

Allison Thompson:

I'll touch on a couple things. Organizationally, very excited, last year we did a brand new strategic plan and very pleased with the outcome of that as well as being fully staffed now. And I believe thoroughly, we've got the right people in the right positions. And so it makes going to work every day really fun and working together really fun. As far as the community goes on the industrial side, where we do tend to focus, we've either sold and or helped to sell buildings during this time. I mean, the pandemic time was a busy time for us, so that in our business parks now we only have two vacant buildings. So very excited about that. And the expansions that have gone on there's been several expansions. So I won't go into each one of them, but the businesses that are there are doing well, and we've got new businesses that have come in.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. Crystal, tell us what's going on in Batesville that you're proud of.

Crystal Johnson:

My answer might be just a little bit more abstract, but I've mentioned this before, but we believe it and have had such success that I'm going to keep saying it until every community in Arkansas has a really strong strategic plan. But as I mentioned before, in 2015, our organization was at a point where we knew how to take care of our members. We knew how to have fundraisers that provided a sustainable organization, but we were really ready to take on a bigger role in community and economic development. And that was foreign to the community. We had tried in the past to establish economic development programs and they would work for a few years, but for one reason or another, they would kind of fade away. But this, we knew we needed a plan really to set the priorities for the future and the community just responded. We had an overwhelming response.

Crystal Johnson:

Really. It was the first time they had been asked for their opinion or for their vision, and really the cool thing that came out of our strategic plan. If I were going to create the plan, the community responded almost just directly in line with what my vision would be, which is to focus on education, economic development, healthy living and well-being and quality of life. So with those four pieces all working together, paired with just massive community support, we're able to really remove the barriers that had been there in the past and get projects taken care of and really moving in a pretty progressive fashion.

Crystal Johnson:

So I would say that our community strategic plan that we call Impact is probably the success story of the last 10 years in Independence County.

Clint O'Neal:

Thanks Crystal. And congratulations to all three of you for the success that you've had recently.

Clint O'Neal:

Let's switch gears a little bit and focus in on the top factors that businesses look at when they evaluate communities. So jobs come from entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs decide where they want to create businesses. Businesses come for the most part from existing companies that decide to add jobs like Buck mentioned with Bryce Corporation, and jobs can come from business attraction projects. So the top factors that businesses look at when they evaluate communities. Buck, what would you say a few of those are?

Buck Layne:

Well, I think the top two are, is what I refer to as product. That's either a building or an available site. I think if you don't have those, you're behind the eight ball right out of the box.

Buck Layne:

Once you get past those, it's a matter of a number of things. I think workforce is the number one issue facing all businesses today. We work very closely with our local Arkansas State University, Beebe/Searcy Campus and have a committee that's set up to do that sort of thing, and they meet on a regular basis. But then you get into things like quality of life, and that means something different to everybody when you mention that to them. But we've got a group of people that are working very hard on that in our community to improve that sort of thing, to come up with things that people would like to do, and people like to come to our community to see.

Buck Layne:

We have 4th of July celebrations now, we have a ball drop on New Year's Eve, and we have a number of festivals throughout the year. We have one call Get Down Downtown, and our main street director, Amy Burton takes care of that along with her committee, but there's a number of things like that going on in our city where we're trying to do a lot of things with a small staff and a small budget.

Clint O'Neal:

Okay. I was unaware of this, Buck. I don't think I've ever received an invitation to the New Year's Eve party.

Buck Layne:

We'll take care of that too, no problem. All right.

Clint O'Neal:

Crystal, let me turn to you next. Talk about the top factors as to why jobs have been created in Batesville by entrepreneurs and companies looking to move into the area or expand in the area.

Crystal Johnson:

Well, we have a great story of entrepreneurship in Batesville, just a couple of companies you've probably heard about: Bad Boy Mowers and the Intimidator Group. Those are both thriving, expanding industry partners that really had a vision. Just two guys, two friends had a vision of building lawn mowers and came together, used their entrepreneurial brain to get that off the ground and have just grown by leaps and bounds. Intimidator Group was recently acquired by Toro. And like I said, Bad Boy's continuing to expand as we speak.

Crystal Johnson:

So the spirit for entrepreneurship is definitely alive and well in Independence County. I would have to agree with Buck that successful projects will never get off the ground if you don't have available sites and buildings, so that's number one priority. But another issue our community is running into at the moment is available housing and really housing across the board. So we're talking about workforce and veteran housing, multi-family housing, single unit homes. That is our priority. That's our pain point right now and what we're really focusing hard to overcome.

Clint O'Neal:

Thanks Crystal. Allison, what would you add to that, top factors?

Allison Thompson:

Well, definitely in alignment with my colleagues. I think they've hit a lot of the top ones and I'll just rather than repeating what they've said. I'll add to it: transportation and connectivity. And we have the Port of Pine Bluff with the foreign trade zone, as well as 530, the interstate coming through airports. Things like this matter. Companies need products and goods from out of the country and the least expensive way to bring them in is by water. So having those transportation corridors and the transportation available, being able to get there from here kind of thing is very important and cannot talk about businesses and growth without talking about broadband and connectivity that way as well. And so that those would be the top things that I would add to.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. Allison, let me stay with you. And I think you've already hit on some of these, but you made your way from corrections to a leadership role in economic development, and in your time in economic development, what are some ways that the field of economic development has changed?

Allison Thompson:

Wow, it's changed a bunch. And I would say number one is diversity. When I first started in economic development, it was basically Anglo men and it has now-

Clint O'Neal:

Like the guys you're in the room with.

Allison Thompson:

Exactly. And now when I'm at an economic development conference, you look across the room and it's about 50/50 men and women, and there's lots more people of color that are involved. And so I really love seeing that and I think it strengthens our profession, our perspective, and it is a good thing. So I'll throw that one out there is what I've seen change.

Clint O'Neal:

Excellent. Crystal, let me ask you the same question. In your time in economic development, how have you seen the career field change?

Crystal Johnson:

Well, maybe a little bit more technical response, but the way we do our work, I would say has changed pretty significantly. So 13 years ago, when I started with just the focus of rebuilding our chamber organization, I would say that we were very event-driven and the purpose for those events, other than bringing people together was to find sustainable funding. And really we've seen such a shift. Now we really focus on building partnerships and identifying other partners in the community who care about the same things that we care about and really getting that buy-in, which takes a lot of time, several years sometimes to build that level of trust. But now what we're seeing are sponsors and partners wanting to help us carry out our mission and are willing to do that without a transaction. So maybe where in the past, over $1,000, we'll sponsor this event, but we want our logo here in this size and this location, and we want 10,000 people to see it. That has shifted now to, “Hey, we also care about this mission. We would like to fund that work and not expect a transaction necessarily to take place,” which allows us more time and capacity to get the real work done. So I've seen that shift and I think it's very interesting.

Clint O'Neal:

Okay Buck, same question for you. Ever since you were given the opportunity, as you say, to seek out other employment opportunities, that's a great way of putting it. You started on a journey in economic development. What has changed since that time?

Buck Layne:

Well, I started 31 years ago. So just stop and think in your own lives how much has changed in the last 31 years. When I took the job at the chamber of commerce, we did not even have a computer. So think of that and then try to think about where we are today, but a little more technical answer if you will, everything is technology-driven today. In the past, you would receive a call and you'd take it from there, but now people can look at your community and you don't even know it. You need to have your information available on a site that's recognized and have the information the site consultants are looking for. And when someone does reach out, you need to be able to have the information for them in a digital format that you can get them immediately.

Buck Layne:

But it's a situation where we used to have a lot of people working on this in our community right now we have a few people working on it right now. And some of the people that were involved in the past are no longer living. So we're in a transition state in our community where the younger people are wanting to become more involved, and we appreciate that, and we welcome that. And it's just a matter of getting everybody on the same page. And I agree with my cohorts here about a strategic plan for your community. I think that's key. Everybody knows where we're going, what our mission statements are and so on and so forth. And I think it's just a situation where each community's different, but each community's fighting the same problems.

Clint O'Neal:

Let's transition a bit to talking about ourselves as professional economic developers. I know that all three of you have worked very hard in your personal journey of training to be economic developers that add values to the communities that you lead. Allison and Buck, you're both Certified Economic Developers through the International Economic Development Council, Crystal, you're a certified Professional Community and Economic Developer and have an Institute for Organizational Management certification. Talk a little bit about those certifications, what the standards are, why that's important and why you pursued that.

Clint O'Neal:

Allison, I'll start with you.

Allison Thompson:

Okay. So as I mentioned, I learned about economic development when I was in graduate school and my thesis was on regional economic development and cooperation. And I was interviewing a lot of economic developers for my thesis, and one of them, Greg Solomon from the Burleson Chamber, told me that I needed to get certified. He said, if you're serious about what you want to do, you need to get certified. And I said, what's that? And started exploring it. I was very fortunate to have employers who supported me and were in support of that. And so I just started the classes and went for certification and I could see the efficacy for that for my career, as well as how much better I was able to serve the communities where I worked by knowing what I was doing and having that body of knowledge. And so after that, I went for the Economic Development Finance Professional, because I really wanted to understand the numbers and how to pull the numbers together. And so that was my purpose in getting those certifications.

Clint O'Neal:

Great.

Clint O'Neal:

What about you, Buck?

Buck Layne:

Well, when I started a long time ago, Paul Latture was at the Little Rock Chamber and I talked to him about this. I talked to anybody that would talk to me back in the day. Most of those people encouraged me much along the lines that Allison just shared, to get as much education as I could, to learn as fast as I could. Also went to the Chamber of Commerce Institute in Oklahoma. And I was doing that in the winter, and I was doing the summer of Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma as well. So it was a great training ground. I met a lot of people. It was a situation where it was kind of like drinking from the proverbial fire hose or hydrant. And it was just a situation where I was a little bit like a sponge. I mean, I loved it. I liked meeting the people there. I liked hearing what was going on in their communities. I liked hearing how they did things and comparing it to how we were doing it here in the state of Arkansas. I mentioned to you, my background was in manufacturing. I mean, there was a certification process there too that I went through and it just seemed like it was natural. You know if you're going to be in the business, find out what you can find out, learn as much as you can learn. The other part of that was just relationships. It was very important to get to know people in the state, make friends and make acquaintances and relationships with site consultants as well. And so the more you would go to these things, the more people you would meet and it all kind of meshed together and it made sense.

Buck Layne:

It wasn't hard to understand how that worked. So I think it's been great. It's been very beneficial to me. I'm very proud of being certified in that, I'm very proud of going through Chamber Institute and the Community Development Institute as well. And I would just encourage anybody that thinks they want to pursue chamber of commerce or economic development careers to follow those same paths is to go to the Chamber of Commerce Institute, get involved with your local state organization, whomever that might be. We're very fortunate to have one here. That's so great. Shelly Short does a great job. She leading that organization and communicating with all of us in our communities.

Allison Thompson:

It gives you that posse.

Buck Layne:

Absolutely.

Allison Thompson:

That you've got somebody to call if you've run up against something you haven't done before, you don't know what to do. And absolutely my best friends have come from those trainings and getting to know other economic developers.

Buck Layne:

Yeah. And to your point, Allison, that's what they shared with us at Institute, is there's nobody in your community that can help you. Nobody knows what you're talking about. Nobody knows what you're dealing with. And honestly, you can't talk about some of the things in your community with some of the people in your community. So you kind of have to have a sounding board or another person at the other end of the line that knows what you're going through and maybe has been through it. And I mentioned Paul, but there was a lot of people back in the day. And there still is. Henry Jones at Jonesboro was a great person to help me along as well. And anyway, it's been a great career. I've enjoyed it.

Clint O'Neal:

That's great. Crystal, tell us a little bit about why you decided to put in the work towards achieving and maintaining the certifications that you have to take you from the sales and marketing background that you have to your career today.

Crystal Johnson:

Sure. Well, unlike my colleagues, the night before my interview, I was Googling ‘what is a chamber of commerce? How do you do economic development?’ I had no idea. Of course at that time, the kind of coined phrases were ‘live, work and play.’ And I even remember referencing those in my interview, really not knowing what that even meant, but I knew that if I was going to be responsible for this organization and the responsibilities that come with the role, I needed to educate myself. So that's when I started. Really my first professional development experience in this role was with Institute for Organization Management, which I thought would be a good place to start because really the curriculum of the program is it could be pretty versatile. So if you're interested in nonprofit management, outside of chamber work or outside of economic development work, you could pick up this knowledge that you learn and apply it to lots of different careers because who knew if this chamber gig was even going to work out, but once I got there and met others in this career, it's the art of relationship building. And again, not a week goes by that I don't have to reach out for help or want to throw something against the wall and see if it sticks, but want to see if someone else has already tried that before. But now I've got this huge network of professionals that I can lean on. That was crucial. Honestly don't know if I would've made it through my first five years of chamber work, had I not been through Institute.

Crystal Johnson:

And then in addition to that, once I knew I loved chamber work and economic development work and knew this is where I wanted to invest my time, I enrolled to get a master's degree in community and economic development from UCA, and the chamber board actually paid for my master's degree. So I've just always continued to stay engaged, continue professional development, stay up to date with industry trends. With the frequent changes, it's just necessary. You almost can't do this work without continuing to invest in your professional development.

Clint O'Neal:

Crystal, that's such a great story. Googling economic development the night before the interview. So I'm curious, did this come out during the interview or did this come out years later or will it come out with the unveiling of this podcast?

Crystal Johnson:

Well, it most certainly will be out in May. You know, I was always very transparent, from the beginning I've said I'm not an expert, I don't claim to be, but what I will give you is dedication and a commitment to figuring it out. And thankfully I had the buy-in of our board and partners that's kind of have supported me in this journey.

Clint O'Neal:

Crystal, let me ask you to add on to that. You talked a little bit there about the qualities that make a successful economic developer. What are some additional qualities?

Crystal Johnson:

I think strategic way of thinking is most certainly crucial. There are lots of moving parts, even as basic as maybe retail recruitment, just being able to strategically think about locations and being able to refer sites that takes a little bit of strategy, but then also working with large groups of community members. So first of all, I would say strategy, but second of all, any advice that I would give in this work is I think to be really successful and have a long career, I tell my staff almost daily, this is not a sprint, this is a marathon. So having some patience, knowing that sometimes projects take a little bit longer than maybe you would like to see, or the community would like to see, but strategy and patience are the two key pieces that I would say you have to have to be successful.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. Allison, slightly different question for you, along those same lines though. What advice would you pass along to students, to young people or people looking to make a career change considering their options as to why pursue a career in economic development.

Allison Thompson:

Economic development's a great career if you like people. It is a relationship business, whether it's the relationships in your community and collaborations and working with others in your community to building relationships and trust with your businesses, with real estate people, with prospects, it's about people and it's about relationships. So if you enjoy that, no two days are ever the same, knowing that some things are going to work and some things aren't, so you got to be an optimist and always know that, Hey that there's possibilities. So I would say if somebody really enjoys getting out and being with people and knowing people and helping people, because there is that give back that helping aspect to it, because when you help to create a job. And I won't say we create them because we don't, it's the businesses that create them. But when you help to create a job, when you help somebody have the opportunity for a job you've helped not just that person, but you've helped their whole family. And so there is all the fields to it too. And so I would say if somebody enjoys that kind of work environment, they should go for it because it's a great career.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. Buck, how many days a week do you drive home saying, I love my job versus I'm looking to take the opportunity to...

Buck Layne:

I love my job. I would say probably five out of seven, if you will. I echo Allison's comments about the relationships, making people's lives better. That's what we heard early on. When a new company comes to town, be it retail, be it industrial, whatever, somebody's life is improved and that's what I think economic development is. It’s making somebody's life better and creating jobs and in our community, and I think we're no different than anybody else, but it's a domino effect. Many of our people that go to work are underemployed. They're not unemployed, and so when they take a job that creates a job at a different level. So it's just a situation of seeing your community grow and improve and seeing people happy. When things are moving in your community, everybody's happy.

Buck Layne:

So I've enjoyed my job from day one. I still enjoy it today. And I would encourage anybody who's interested to talk to somebody in the business. That's what I did. I mentioned two old guys. They probably wouldn't appreciate that term, but Paul Latture and Henry Jones, and now I resemble that, but it's a situation where people like Crystal, and I was like Crystal at one point in time. I was looking to learn more. And so we looked to people that were experts in the business. We went to see them. We talked to them, met with them, tried to pick their brains, and they were all very helpful. Couldn't have asked for better mentors than any of those guys.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, thank you all. Last question for everyone on a lighter note. We're all champions of the state of Arkansas. If you have somebody visiting from out of state, they're going to spend a few days in Arkansas. What are some of the attractions, maybe restaurants, top things to do that you would encourage around the state of Arkansas, including one in your community.

Clint O'Neal:

Allison.

Allison Thompson:

Okay, well, so got to talk about the Saracen Casino since that's our shiny new penny. So that's the one from our area I'll talk about, but I talk up the Clinton Library. I think it's really cool that we have that and the museums, as well as the outdoors opportunities for hiking and getting on the water, so much water in Arkansas. So much water. Whether it's a bayou or a river or a lake to get out and to be in the natural environment. So there's lots of things from around the state to talk about.

Clint O'Neal:

Great lineup, great to-do list there. Crystal, same question for you.

Crystal Johnson:

Well, along those same lines, I think we all living in Arkansas can take for granted our natural resources. So we always try to really highlight those. And along with that comes, of course, struggles in the community with making sure that you have provided access to your natural resources. But when those things come together, it's actually very unique. Things that we take for granted, they don't have another communities. Of course, we realize that almost every community has a main street that may not be unique. But what is unique is that we have, like I said earlier, the spirit of entrepreneurship. So we have awesome restaurants. We have awesome shopping, just really our small town kind of feel, I think is what other people are looking for. So we always promote our downtown, our main street merchants, our local merchants, and then of course love to promote all of our natural resources.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. And Buck, in addition to the New Year's Eve party in Searcy, what would you advise your guest?

Buck Layne:

Well, all of these kind of tie together, but we have a group of people in our community that are actively looking to improve our community. By that, I mean, they took an alleyway that was a typical alleyway in all of our communities, that was not very attractive and they changed it into a art alley is the name of it now. And local artists literally paint something on the walls. I think it lasts for a minimum of 30 days and then they transfer or change it out. And now it's a tourist attraction. And at the end of that alleyway, there's an area where a building was, and it's just the three sides in a stage area. Well, that's been transformed into a literal stage area and it's got the lights where you can have an event, be it a band or concert or something like that. And people gather all over our downtown area. And then again, this same group has come up with a regular function called Beats and Eats, and you can imagine the music and the food. And they started out doing that monthly and it kind of ran its course, and now we're doing it quarterly. And it's just a great way for people to come and network and get to know each other and meet other people and it's safe environment. But those are some things on the local level that we're trying to do that seem to really be gathering a lot of interest, not only from our local people, but people coming in our community. So we're real pleased and we invite anybody to come and Clint, I will send you an invitation to our ball drop and anything else like that we have going on in Searcy.

Clint O'Neal:

That sounds good. Well, it's been a lot of fun visiting with you three today. I'm sure a lot of information can be found on your organization's webpages that expand on what you've talked about from success and economic development to fun things to do in your community. So I want to thank our guests on today's podcast, Crystal Johnson, CEO of the Batesville, Arkansas Area Chamber of Commerce; Allison Thompson, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, Arkansas; and Buck Layne, president and CEO of the Searcy, Arkansas Regional Chamber of Commerce. It's been a pleasure talking with you all today.

Allison Thompson:

Thank you.

Buck Layne:

Thank you very much.

Crystal Johnson:

Thank you.

Clint O'Neal:

You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clint O'Neal, deputy director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. You can subscribe to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. For more information about AEDC and to sign up for our monthly newsletter, visit arkansasedc.com and connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks for tuning in.