Warren Stephens Calls for Strong Little Rock Regional Identity, Uncertain About U.S. Economic Future

by Mark Carter  on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010 3:23 pm  

Warren Stephens touched on topics related to U.S. macroeconomics and Little Rock's continued development of a strong regional identity in his keynote address to the 145th annual meeting of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

The high points from the Stephens Inc. president and CEO:

  • Greater Little Rock must continue to develop a strong regional identity;
  • Three vital and perhaps overlooked economic engines for the region are the local health-care industry, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and the Little Rock Air Force Base;
  • The cities within Pulaski County should pool resources and incorporate into one city (an idea he first pitched to the Chamber eight years ago);
  • Businesses should receive a tax incentive for investing in regional economic development;
  • Interest rates and inflation are headed up;
  • The credit market will continue to tighten in response to federal legislation;
  • The Obama administration is irresponsible to try and hammer through legislation that needs more debate during a lame-duck session;
  • He won't be signing the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge anytime soon.

The several hundred Chamber members and guests who packed the Wally Allen Ballroom of the Statehouse Convention Center appreciated that last point. Stephens was answering a question about his future philanthropic endeavors, and in his response noted the Giving Pledge, in which billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are pledging half their fortunes to charity.

"We ain't doing that," he said, wryly.

In noting the growth of Stephens Inc., which has about 550 employees at its downtown Little Rock office, Stephens said he wants to continue that growth, bringing good jobs to the city, and continue to be a philanthropic member of the community.

Stephens stressed that Little Rock must continue to develop a regional brand, and said business leaders should "strongly encourage our elected officials to combine services and save money."

Stephens said all five incorporated cities in Pulaski County spent a combined $155.8 million for police, fire and transportation services last year, and the three school districts within Pulaski County had a combined budget of $551 million.

"Think maybe there's some potential savings there," he said.

Stephens has talked about regional cooperation before. He's even said business and community leaders in central Arkansas should consider merging governments in the region — including Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County — to cut waste and raise the profile of the area.

Since regional development efforts began in earnest in 2005, Stephens said more than 11,000 new jobs have been created, $431 million has been added to the regional payroll and $1.2 billion in new-capital investments have been made.

"And these have not been the best of times," he said. "It just shows you what we can do when we work together as a region."

Engines of Growth

Stephens cited the local health-care industry, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville as regional and perhaps overlooked economic engines.

The medical community in the region provides 24,000 jobs, he said, with an economic impact (according to UALR) of $2.8 billion. UALR supplies 5,800 direct and indirect jobs with an economic impact of $242 million, while the air base provides more than 13,000 civilian and military jobs with a $609 million economic impact, he said.

"These are three important economic engines we must continue to encourage, enhance and appreciate," he said.

Spending and the Economy

Stephens called the economic environment uncertain, calling for the continuing tightening of credit, rising interest rates and inflation.

"The lack of credit has made the economic slump we're in worse," he said.

Stephens said questions remain unanswered about legislation such as the pending omnibus spending bill, and more debate is needed.

"There remain some very serious questions about all these bills," he said. "To try and pass this in a rush manner in a lame-duck session is at a minimum irresponsible. Until we know what our tax rates are going to be, the uncertainty in the economy will remain and the economic recovery will continue to be slow."

Also Wednesday, Hugh McDonald of Entergy Arkansas was named the chamber board's 2011 chairman.



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