AEDC Moves Its Focus to Quality

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission has had a string of high-profile announcements since Maria Haley became executive director in February 2007.

Several companies have announced the planned openings of operations in the state, most recently Caterpillar Inc. of Peoria, Ill., and its factory in North Little Rock, which promises to bring 600 jobs.

Under her leadership, the AEDC has shifted its focus. It emphasizes relationships and quality, not quantity. In addition, Haley said, the commission has advanced itself by serving existing businesses.

The AEDC has three main goals, she said. They are advancing education, because “education and economic development are inseparable”; shifting the agency’s focus to a global perspective; and strengthening the local economic development infrastructure, which is “the lifeblood of economic development.”

All three goals appear in the Strategic Plan for Economic Development commissioned by Gov. Mike Beebe and released in January. After listing the three, Haley added a fourth: focusing on business retention and expansion.

Fellow economic development officials around the state have given Haley high marks for her efforts so far. And Haley has plans to build on her success. The current economy has presented its difficulties, but also offers opportunities for the state, she said.

Working for the Clients

In the past, the AEDC focused its efforts on the communities in Arkansas. It would receive a request for proposals regarding a company searching for a site. The proposal would go out to almost every economic development official in the state, many of whom would return a proposal. It didn’t matter if a city met the criteria sought by the company.

The AEDC now emphasizes being “client focused,” Haley said. The clients are company executives and site-selection officials who work together to find possible locations for businesses.

When a company outlines the areas it is looking at, Haley and the AEDC contact only the local development officials with a chance to win the contract. That means that not as many cities are involved in the recruitment of individual companies, but the communities that are involved have a greater chance of succeeding because the decision makers are not burdened with excessive amounts of information, Haley said.

The focus is on quality, not quantity. The philosophy has emerged at the AEDC because technology has enabled companies and site selection officials to conduct much of their research before soliciting requests, Haley said.

“People do their initial research via the Web, and when they tell us their specific requirements, we try to match it with the right communities instead of showing it to the entire world,” Haley said.

Although businesses locating operations in Arkansas might bring reporters with pens and pads in hand, Haley said the commission’s efforts to strengthen business retention and development had often been overlooked.

“This does not necessarily create news because the news is always in a major announcement or retention,” Haley said.

Haley pointed to the development of the Arkansas Aerospace Alliance, headed by the AEDC’s Robin Pelton. The alliance has worked with aerospace companies in Arkansas to meet the needs of Arkansas largest industry in terms of exports. The alliance worked with Dassault Falcon Jet and Hawker Beechcraft Corp., both of which operate private jet completion centers at the Little Rock National Airport, to develop training programs at local two-year colleges.Our goal “is to work together to provide the services that businesses need,” Haley said.

The Recession
Despite the recent economic downturn, the AEDC continues to cultivate contacts and search for opportunities to grow business in the state.

“It doesn’t stop just because the economy is down,” Haley said. “In fact, this is the time for us to be more aggressive.”About one month ago, AEDC officials visited both Europe and China, Haley said. The officials met with companies and pitched Arkansas as a possible site for businesses, she said. Two weeks after the overseas excursions, a contingent of AEDC officials, including Haley, jetted to Chicago for an event.

“Next week we are going to have a major event in Chicago, and we are trying to be ready for when the economy will be back up,” Haley said. “We want to be constantly in front of site selection authorities. We want Arkansas to be a player.”

Recruiting companies to Arkansas is much like sales. And sales are about connections and relationships, Haley said.

“We are not only developing the connections; it is constantly nurturing those contacts,” Haley said.

Contacts are one thing Haley has brought with her to the AEDC. When asked about her acquaintances, Haley balked at answering the question, believing it to be presumptuous. After Joe Holmes, the AEDC’s marketing and communications manager, assured her the question was not, she answered obliquely.

“My international background has given me the resources to fulfill my job,” Haley said.

Haley worked in the White House under President Bill Clinton and was a senior direct at Kissinger McLarty Associates of Washington, D.C., an international economic development firm.

Her connections include Arkansans with whom she remained in contact during her Washington days, many contacts throughout the United States and many beyond the nation’s borders.

“I pick up the telephone and I call,” Haley said. “And if I need something from Asia, they help me. Sometimes getting the right information is helpful.”

The international experience has helped because one of the main goals outlined for Haley by Beebe was expanding Arkansas’ presence beyond the region.

“In essence, our competitors are not our neighboring states,” Haley said.

The Tools
The creation of the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund provided a boon to economic development when the Legislature gave it the go-ahead in 2007, Haley said. The original fund consisted of $40 million, of which $180,000 remains. During the 2009 session, the Legislature approved another $50 million for the fund.

Haley said the Legislature and governor’s appropriation of the money has enabled the AEDC to more easily recruit companies to Arkansas. Companies might be looking at multiple sites that meet certain criteria. Incentives from local government agencies can help set one suitor apart, she said.

The money can also be used to keep jobs from leaving the state. The best example, Haley said, was Cooper Tire’s decision to keep its plant in Texarkana. The state provided the company $2 million from the closing fund during negotiations. Of the $39.8 million promised to companies, only $12.3 million has been paid because the money awarded is based on companies meeting goals to receive payment.

Using public money to keep a private entity in state has critics. Haley answers them sharply.

“Who says that when you are keeping hundreds of employees, why would it not be the best use of government funds?”

The moves retained 1,400 jobs and added 350, Holmes said.

“Not only do you look at the direct jobs, but you look at the indirect jobs,” Haley said.