Rockefeller Legacy Conference Focuses on Economic Development

Spurring economic development in rural Arkansas and the role public policy can play was the focus of the fourth-annual Winthrop Rockefeller Legacy Weekend held over the weekend on Petit Jean Mountain.

The event brings together state officials and business leaders each year to recognize and dissect former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller's contributions to economic development in Arkansas and examine current challenges.

Panel discussions focused on three topics:

  • Using creativity to build a competitive economy and the role of the arts in economic development.
  • Public policy and how increased public awareness can foster growth.
  • Rural Arkansas and the need for more access to funding for small businesses and startups.

"We have products made here in our state that we don't promote as well as we should," said Sherece West, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and a panel moderator.

Public policy should encourage promotion of all the state has to offer, she said, including aspects of the arts, the "creative economy."

"That spurs development here in the state," she said. "It includes things made here in Arkansas and items that are Arkansas based."

The creative economy has been identified as the third-largest industry cluster in the state. It includes the arts as well as businesses that produce and distribute creative products and services.

Discussion also centered on the Rockefeller economic-development brand and its impact on the state. Rockefeller was elected governor in 1967 and served two terms. He previously served as chair of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, the forerunner to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which he helped create.

Rockefeller is credited with securing more than 600 new industrial plants to the state, which provided 90,000 new jobs. In addition, he adopted the state's first minimum wage.

The event was held at the University of Arkansas Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean. Next year's event will celebrate five years as well as what would have been Rockefeller's centennial birthday.

Also participating in panel discussions were:

  • Maria Haley, AEDC director
  • Rex Nelson, president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges and Universities
  • Tom Dalton, director, Innovate Arkansas
  • Dominik Mjartan, vice president with Southern Bancorp
  • Deborah Slayton, development director at alt.Consulting
  • Charlie Stockton, director, Financing Ozarks Rural Growth and Economy (FORGE)
  • Craig McCulloh Smith, former Arkansas Industrial Development Commission director and assistant to Rockefeller
  • Charles Venus, a member of the Arkansas Governor's Council of Economic Advisors since 1967
  • William "Sonny" Walker, former director of the Arkansas Office of Economic Opportunity under Rockefeller and the first black person to hold a Cabinet position in the South.

"I thought the weekend provided a wonderful opportunity to reflect on an important period in our state's past and how we can apply some of the lessons learned then to present problems we face," Nelson said.