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Arkansas Inc. Podcast: Economic Development Week

 May 04, 2021

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. podcast, AEDC's Clint O'Neal talks with three economic development professionals from different parts of the state in recognition of Economic Development Week. Brad Lacy, President and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce; Graycen Bigger, Executive Director of the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority; and Rob Sitterley, President and CEO of the AR-TX Regional Economic Development Inc. group talk about how they got started in economic development, their roles in working with community partners, and how successful projects come together.  

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TRANSCRIPT

Speaker 1:  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 the Executive Vice President of Global Business for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. This podcast is being released during Economic Development [00:00:30] Week. The International Economic Development Council created Economic Development Week to increase awareness of local programs that create jobs, advance career development opportunities and improve the quality of life in communities everywhere.

A mentor of mine once said that economic developers do things that many people think just happen on their own. Today, I'm joined by three of the best economic development leaders in Arkansas. They're going to take us behind the scenes and talk about the economic development [00:01:00] profession, industrial site development, strategic planning, and winning competitive projects. Our guests are Brad Lacy, he's the President and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corporation. Graycen Bigger serves as Executive Director of the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority. And Rob Sitterley is President and CEO of a fairly new regional economic development group in Texarkana called the Arkansas-Texas Regional Economic [00:01:30] Development Inc, or REDI for short. Brad, Graycen and Rob, welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Graycen Bigger: Thanks for having us.

Brad Lacy: Thank you.

Rob Sitterley:  Yeah. Thanks Clint. Appreciate the opportunity.

Clint O'Neal:  All right. Well, let's start with some self-introductions. Graycen, why don't you go first and tell us a little bit about the organization that you lead and how long you've been in the position?

Graycen Bigger:  Sure. Happy Economic Development Week, everyone. This is exciting. I represent an organization called The Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority, and [00:02:00] we're relatively new as well. Like our name suggests we're a regional economic development alliance that represents rural communities across four counties in Northeast Arkansas. And our mission is really simple, just to create employment opportunities and promote quality of life in our area. We're one of seven in our models in the state, and we were actually formed by an Act of the state legislature in 2009. I've been lucky enough to work with the organization as executive [00:02:30] director for just over three years now.

Clint O'Neal:  Thanks Graycen. All right, Rob?

Rob Sitterley:  Rob Sitterley with AR-TX REDI, the regional economic development group here in Texarkana. We are pretty new, two years we were formed, and basically to kind of bridge the gap between some competitive issues that we had here in the twin cities. It was a Texas versus Arkansas sort of mentality before I got here, but a strong group of local leaders and entrepreneurs got [00:03:00] together and said, "We need a regional group to bring the entire community and area together." And so super blessed that I've got an incredible board and folks here that are focused on, for the first time in a long time, bringing new jobs and economic development too, to our area. So again, thanks for having us.

Clint O'Neal:  Excellent. Thanks Rob. Brad, you're the veteran of economic development here in this group, for the State of Arkansas. You've been around the profession the longest, but you've been on this podcast the shortest [00:03:30] due to your tech challenges. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Brad Lacy:  Right. So I've been in the industry almost 25 years. I started with you guys at the state in a community development role, and then in a project manager role for a total of three years. And then I have been in this job role as President, CEO of the Conway Development Corporation, which is our local [00:04:00] non-profit economic development entity that was formed in 1959. We are city-based, so we really don't work outside the city limits, often. I've held that role for, this will be my 22nd year, and then in 2006, picked up the chamber role as well. So I kind of wear two hats, and the chamber has been around since 1891. So the organizations are pretty old and pretty important [00:04:30] to our community, but we are city-based, which is also a little bit different.

Clint O'Neal:  Well, thanks Brad. Let's talk a little bit about economic development careers, and the pathways of the careers of you three. Graycen, let's start with you. I'm assuming you didn't grow up as a kid dreaming about a career in economic development. Tell us a little bit about how you got into the profession.

Graycen Bigger:  Absolutely. I'm not sure anyone really dreams of being an economic developer in their kindergarten dream [00:05:00] journal, but no, I grew up thinking I was going to have a career in communications or specifically the arts. And when I was in school, I became really interested in looking at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and its impact on Northwest Arkansas. And that was really what peaked my interest in economic development. And I'm from Northeast Arkansas regionally. And about that time, I moved back home to the state and wanted to plug in and get involved and [00:05:30] started working on community development projects. And it led me to Intermodal. So it's been an interesting journey, but I love that what I get to do kind of marries all of those things, community development, communications, and the arts on a daily basis.

Clint O'Neal:   Thanks Graycen. Brad, you told us a little bit about your background, for our listeners who are interested in economic development, but not sure where or how to get started, what advice would you share with them?

Brad Lacy:  I think you see people get to this role [00:06:00] in many different ways. Obviously being involved at the community level is critically important. And while you might not be the paid professional for a community, each of us depends on volunteers for different sort of technical expertise that they might have. So I can't even imagine trying to do this job without some of the folks on my board who are bankers or real estate [00:06:30] professionals. So I would say if you want to be involved, work through your local organizations, if you're really focused on the job itself, and you're, let's say in college, maybe intern with your local chamber or ED organization, and that will help you see what the job really is, because I think what the job really is versus what some people think it is, are two completely different things.

Clint O'Neal:  [00:07:00] Thanks, Brad. Rob, we'll go to you. A two-part question, what's your favorite thing about being in economic development and what's the most challenging part of your job?

Rob Sitterley:  I think clearly the most favorite thing, I would assume the entire panel would say this, every single day, there's something different and there's a new challenge in front of us, especially here at a brand new organization, two years old at this point, I came from the State of Florida where I ran the business development team under two governors. And so things are pretty set in stone at [00:07:30] that organization. Here, it's literally kind of trailblazing a new path for the community and the region every single day. So clearly my favorite thing is that challenges is just the same exact answer. We are relatively new, I'm kind of envious of Brad and the longevity that he has in his community. So we're trying to find revenue streams that will prop this organization up for the next 20, 30, 40 years, but really, really enjoy the challenge ahead and [00:08:00] all the opportunity we have here. And what I arguably say is one of the greatest regions in the south.

Clint O'Neal:  Thanks Rob. Brad, let's talk a little bit about strategic planning, you and your team have recently been leading a new strategic planning effort in Conway. Give us your perspective on why planning is so important to successful economic development.

Brad Lacy:  Sure. We believe that the most important component of economic development is actually community development. Because if your [00:08:30] product stinks, there's no amount of money that you the state or we the local community can give to a company to recruit you to move to a place you don't want to move to. So we figured out a long time ago that really what we needed to be doing as much as buying industrial sites or business park locations is community development, to build quality of place. And in order to do that, you really need to know what your citizens think. You really need to understand [00:09:00] what their preferences are, and that means you need to ask.

 So we go through every 10 years, a pretty exhaustive, strategic planning process where we open up and ask for public input on a variety of topics, and then move into a really planning phase where citizens are introduced to different topics. And then they sort of focus on those, whether that might be [00:09:30] arts and entertainment or education or job creation. And at the end of that process, we will have a visioning document that will guide not only our organization, but in certain elements, what the city does, other nonprofits. And then we take it a little bit further where every employee in our organization has measurable goals and objectives that [00:10:00] lead back to that plan. So our compensation and our success down to the individual level in our organization comes from that overall strategic plan. And we think it takes a lot of time, but it's the most important thing that we can do because the steering committee, the citizens are very diverse. And so we get a diverse range of opinions that will help guide us.

Clint O'Neal: Thanks, [00:10:30] Brad. Rob, I'll ask you about something I know you've spent a lot of time working on and that's industrial site development. There are many different things a company is looking for in a site, from access to rail, utilities, airports, and more. I'd like to hear your thoughts on industrial site prep and why it's so critical to winning an economic development.

Rob Sitterley:  I literally just had a site selector from Global Location Strategy, Sarah White in town yesterday. She was in for a day and a half, kind of learning a little bit about our community, looking at [00:11:00] a site that she's helping us certify. And it comes down to, you need that kind of asset in hand and you need a combination of properties, maybe some light industrial, heavy industrial, maybe logistics. And so I've spent the last two years here. We didn't have a ton of those things in place. And so I've spent the last two years trying to find industrial sites that compliment one another. And I think we have some really great spots, we've got [inaudible 00:11:29] America's [00:11:30] center, our Arkansas manufacturing center, and then our East Texas logistics center that offers something unique for any kind of business looking in our region.

We've got some incredible assets to sell. When it comes to workforce, our training that we have here in place with Texarkana College, community college that has a school advanced manufacturing, along with Texas A&M and the University of Arkansas, we're the only community in the country that can call home to two public university systems. And so we have those [00:12:00] kinds of assets already in hand. Typically a community would try to build that up, but thankfully I've got it, but we didn't have an actual group of certified shovel-ready sites that we could promote. And so that's what we've spent a ton of time on.

Sarah White at Global Location Strategies talked in depth yesterday about how important that is, that you run the traps on those properties, that you do the environmental work, that you answer the questions when it comes to desktop reviews and [00:12:30] soil boring and subsurface exploration, all that's been done here on our sites and ultimately it'll lead to people being interested and wanting to locate, but to Brad's point, if you don't have a community that people can kind of fall in love with, then you don't have anything and sites don't matter, but we'd argue we've got a really cool place here in Texarkana that offers options on the Texas side and the Arkansas side that are pretty unmatched anywhere in the country.

Clint O'Neal:  Thanks Rob. Graycen, let's talk about winning economic development projects. In [00:13:00] October of last year, in the middle of the pandemic Emerson, a global technology and engineering company announced plans to open a new facility in Ash Flat, Arkansas in Sharp County, including an investment of 35 million and the creation of approximately 245 new jobs within four years. A huge win for that community, and you were very involved in that project. This is one of several recent examples of companies expanding into a smaller, more rural locations in Arkansas. Tell us how [00:13:30] and why small towns can sometimes win big in economic development projects.

Graycen Bigger:  Sure. There are definitely companies that want to be located in smaller or rural communities, with a national workforce shortage companies are interested in being the kind of the premier employer in an area and build a really loyal workforce. And that's what we saw with Emerson. This community was one that had never really put themselves out there for economic development, not [00:14:00] on a state or national level, but they had a great product in a building that had been constructed about 40 years ago. And so we put it out there and we worked with a great real estate team that did video and photos of it. And the first people who really looked at the building wanted it. And this community, I think it's important to note that it's about 1100 people. And so when you're looking at workforce issues, that made the company a little bit nervous, but we're lucky enough to already have built [00:14:30] those regional partnerships.

And so when we came into the room, you weren't looking at an area of 1100, you were looking at an area of 66,000 people, and you were looking at two community colleges, you were looking at a, kind of a slate of local leaders that were there to help you and utility companies that were saying, "We will do whatever it takes." And that's really the attitude you have to have. And I think a lot of rural communities are hungry and are ready to do that. We built some really great personal [00:15:00] relationships with them and they knew my phone was on day or night. And I've gotten to know them on a personal level and their families. And so that's been a really fun part that I think you don't always get in a larger city when you're working multiple projects at once.

They had my complete and undivided attention for most of 2020. But in addition to that, kind of what Brad was saying with these local partnerships and volunteers, we had an incredible team, both of [00:15:30] public partners with utilities in the city and the county, but we also had some great private partnerships of local businesses that stepped up and offered incentives for the project that the city wouldn't have been able to do otherwise that really pushed this project over the edge. So I think if rural communities are willing to get in there and do the work, they've got something really special to offer.

Clint O'Neal:  Thanks Graycen. Rob, I'll go back to you. You lead a Bi-State regional economic development group. You have a lot of people in the region [00:16:00] to keep happy. I'd like to hear a little bit more of your perspective on the collaboration and economic development, who are some of those partners that need to be at the table, all working together?

Rob Sitterley:  I think again, the panel would all agree that economic development is a team sport. That if you don't have the entire group kind of rowing in the same direction, then it can splinter and fall apart pretty quickly. I was very fortunate before I got here to have a group of community leaders and business owners [00:16:30] that got together and said, "Okay, enough with fighting across the state line." Arkansas would win a project and Texas would be offended and vice versa. And so they said, "Let's look more at a regional level. Let's work together. Let's all be at the same table and discuss these things." And so that's where REDI formed. And so I've got county judges from both sides on my board, as I do city mayors, Texarkana, [00:17:00] Texas, and Arkansas, that our board members have REDI.

And we basically just sit down and we work together, and without working together, this doesn't work. And I'm very fortunate that we've got a team to do that in this case. And for me, it's just all about communication. It's about letting them know, if I have a advancement or a win on the Arkansas side, I need to let my Texas team know and vice versa. And so we just opened those communications lines up where we share [00:17:30] what projects we're chasing down. And again, are vastly different because we chose that to be different. And how we went about that was selecting sites that service different industries, different target industries. So we've got just a small handful of industries that were really strong at, logistics distribution being one, manufacturing being another, we call ourselves here a proud region of American builders, truly believe that. And so we're not even competing on projects necessarily because our products, our sites [00:18:00] are so vastly different. But it all, again comes back to kind of unifying that voice, making sure that they're at the table and making sure they understand what we're all working on together.

Clint O'Neal:  Thanks, Rob. Graycen, tell us a little bit more about the communities you serve. What are the unique selling points and challenges in your region, and what advice do you have for local elected leaders in community and economic development?

Graycen Bigger:  Sure. So our footprint kind of like Robs, sometimes it goes over the state line into Missouri, but we really, our core areas, [00:18:30] the City of Corning in Northeast Arkansas, and it kind of extends through Randolph county, the City of Pocahontas, Lawrence County, Walnut Ridge, and then on, over into Sharp County. And then it goes all the way to Cave City, right at the border of Sharp County. And I always like to say the Intermodal areas where the Delta meets the Ozarks. So if you love being outdoors, you're going to love it here. That's one of our big selling points, is quality of life. It's one of the only places you can go, duck hunting, floating, and trout fishing. And [00:19:00] we've seen companies and developers take advantage of that throughout these projects. But we're lucky enough to have three unique, higher education institutions, two community colleges that have different areas of focus and a four year private university Williams Baptist, that's doing some great things and workforce as well.

Our primary industry across our footprint is agriculture. Whether it's row crops or really, you see a lot of cattle farming and [00:19:30] poultry processing, but we really have a growing manufacturing base. And we always like to kind of tell the fact, from the creative place-making side, that we're home to three award-winning state festivals. So a lot of people have heard of our area, whether it's the Cave City Watermelon Festival, Arkansas Pie Festival, or Beatles at the Ridge, there's always something that people are coming over for, but I have a great board and I'll kind of want to echo what Rob said, that we all work together. And even though these communities are in close proximity [00:20:00] to one another, they're all very unique and have different strong suits. And so what might be right for a project in one community is not going to work in another, for whatever reason.

Our biggest challenges are not unique to most rural communities, when we start talking about amenities like hotels and restaurants, anything in the hospitality industry, that's really important to recruitment efforts. Sometimes it's a struggle to get those in rural communities and keep them running. But that's where you have to get [00:20:30] creative. And we've had several local leaders stand up and say, "We're going to make this happen." For example, the mayor in Walnut Ridge, he put in a hotel because he saw it was a need and he just went and did it himself and did a great job with it. Population is also a challenge for any of the communities in our footprint, when you're talking about workforce, but that's why we work together as a region, but nothing unique really in terms of challenges for us other than the things that come with the [00:21:00] small populations in the individual communities.

Clint O'Neal:  All right. Brad, last question for you, for our listeners who may read the headlines about new jobs, but don't work in economic development on a daily basis. Tell us from your perspective, how a successful project comes together?

Brad Lacy:  Well, I sort of alluded to this maybe idea that people have about what this business is versus what it really is. I think if you were to ask a lot of folks, they think it's about entertaining [00:21:30] people in doing this really fun stuff. And there is, as you know, the other side of the equation, that's just a very small part of what we do. And so I always try to help people understand that it's really about data and the quality of your data, the ability to answer questions. And as Rob said, you have sort of the technical aspects of the site. We are seeing more and more [00:22:00] RFPs where they're asking questions about things like social justice and diversity. And so I would say that goes back to why that strategic planning and that community development focus is so important because all of that work that you do every day, the hard work that you do on building the community eventually pays off when companies begin to look at you.

And so you see the headline, but you really [00:22:30] have no idea what all that work might look like. And we had our entire team out picking trash up a day before a site visit. So there are definitely elements of it that are not glamorous, but it's very important to each of our communities in our areas. And it is very much its own business. I think it is virtually impossible [00:23:00] to do this with volunteers. There's just no way that a group of volunteers can do the same level of work that a paid staff does. And so for communities that really want to be competitive in economic development, you have to have the resources to hire a staff. Because I like to say, if it's not someone's full-time job and if someone's not getting paid to do it full-time, it's [00:23:30] probably not getting done.

Clint O'Neal:  Thanks Brad. Well this has been a fantastic discussion. I want to thank our guests today. Brad Lacy, President and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corporation, Graycen Bigger, Executive Director of the The Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority and Rob Sitterley, President and CEO of the Arkansas-Texas Regional Economic Development Inc group.

As we wrap up, I want to give a big shout out to everyone involved in economic development, job [00:24:00] creators, economic developers, elected leaders, volunteers, utility companies, workforce development organizations, and everyone around the State of Arkansas that speaks highly of communities and our state and serves as an ambassador for what we're doing in economic development. As we've talked about today, it's a big milestone to announce new jobs and to celebrate economic development success. But there's a lot that goes behind it. And truly the [00:24:30] best day in economic development is when Arkansans are able to get jobs, get better jobs, better provide for themselves and their families. And so economic development work is truly important. And just want to say thank you to those listening everywhere that are involved. So to everyone tuning in, thanks for listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clint O'Neal Executive Vice President of Global Business with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. For more information about our organization and the latest economic development news in Arkansas, [00:25:00] visit arkansasedc.com or connect with us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Thank you.

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