MLRA Director Development Plan Bearing Fruit

Is the Little Rock region about to experience an economic growth spurt?

Jay Chesshir thinks so — and he's in a position to have an opinion.

Chesshir is the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce's team leader for economic development, and he's the executive director of the Metro Little Rock Alliance.

To back up his feelings, Chesshir said there's going to be an announcement this week of a company opening up a facility in the region that will employ 140-150 full-time workers. The impending arrival in Little Rock of yet another new company will be announced on Sept. 9, he said.

"In the first six months of this year," Chesshir said, "we've had three times as many site visits as we did in the same period last year. We're light-years ahead of where we've been."

Paul Latture, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority, said visits have "picked up markedly" this year. "Little Rock is getting more attention than in the past," he said, crediting the chamber and the Arkansas Department of Economic Development's efforts.

Although there have been no official announcements, Latture said the port authority has recently sold three parcels of land to a grease recovery company, an agriculture feed-additive business and a plastics company.

The turnaround is the result of a process that began when local leaders saw the need to develop a regional concept for economic development rather than have each small town fighting it out for a new business or industry.

That effort started with what was at the time simply a joint marketing effort by the 11-county Central Arkansas Economic Development Alliance. That developed into the Metro Little Rock Alliance.

The alliance shelled out about $145,000 for AngelouEconomics of Austin, Texas, an economic development consulting firm, to survey the central Arkansas region and develop a plan. It took 10 months, but the result was a comprehensive plan.

And it's that plan the Little Rock chamber and the Metro Little Rock Alliance are following.

"Regional economic development is working," Chesshir said, and he traces the upturn to the Angelou analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the region.

"It provided us with a good road map not only of where we were, but where we want to go," he said. "It crystallized what we already knew."

Once everyone got on board and approved the plan and started to implement its recommendations, the results started showing up.

"We're on the same page now," Chesshir said. "We've created a plan, and we're working the plan."

One of the first recommendations to be adopted was the renaming of the alliance to take advantage of the fact that Little Rock is a recognized name while the geographic reference to central Arkansas meant little outside the state.

The second step of the Angelou plan was the hiring of a full-time, paid director. That happened in February with the choice of Chesshir, who was at the time president of both the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Garland County Economic Development Corp.

New Targets

About three months ago, Chesshir said, MLRA and the chamber changed the focus of their marketing efforts.

Rather than try to market the business opportunities in the Little Rock region on as wide a group as possible, the focus was narrowed primarily to site consultant firms — perhaps only 500 or so people.

The six industries targeted by the chamber's board of directors are advanced manufacturing/distribution, aviation, biotechnology/medical re-search, information technology, nonprofit organizations, and retail and office/business development.

"We feel this is a much more effective way of marketing," Chesshir said.

It's not the consultants' job to find communities for their clients, but to weed out areas, he said. And MLRA discovered that very few had any impression of the Little Rock region — either positive or negative.

That always changed to the positive, however, when the site consultants made a visit to the area, Chesshir said: "If we can get them here, everything changes."

One of the main priorities of the chamber and MLRA is an economic development Web site being developed by Aristotle of Little Rock that targets those site consultants and company executives.

"It will be a massive amount of information that will be put on the Web site, but we think the more information available to the targeted people, the better it will work," Chesshir said. "They will be able to know everything about the region and they'll know before they come if a site is suitable. It will provide all the information that site consultants say they want. It will put us in front of a lot of companies that we wouldn't be without the Web site."

The first phase of the site will launch next month. "It will be a tool that few others will have," Chesshir said. It will catalog all commercial and industrial sites and buildings.

"And it again points to the value of regionalism in economic development. No single community in the region could afford to do it."

So what have been the comments from the large influx of site visitors in the past few months?

"First-time visitors are surprised at many things: the downtown area, the River Market District, Alltel Arena, the airport," Chesshir said. "They were not expecting to find that. The metropolitan area is beyond what they were expecting. They are surprised at the investment made in the community, the friendliness of the people and the cleanliness of the area."

"It's difficult and expensive to have a successful economic development program," he said. But a cost-benefits analysis of getting the site consultants here for a visit compared with the investment and jobs that could result is a no-brainer, Chesshir said.

The MLRA has a $300,000 annual budget that comes from both private sector companies and community economic development organizations.

MLRA has a volunteer board of business leaders and economic developers from Pulaski, Garland, Faulkner, Jefferson, Saline, White, Lonoke, Hot Spring, Conway, Grant and Perry counties.

Partnership

By forming a region of nearly 1 million people, the area has begun to appear on the radar screen of many who never even considered the area before. It's a figure economic developers say is critical to those who look for sites for businesses to relocate.

Chesshir sees that partnership as critical for the future growth of the area. "I believe by continuing to be partners, we will create short-term and middle-term success," he said. "For long-term success there must be no political or school boundaries that stop us from working together."

"If we don't work together, there'll be pockets of success while other areas will be left behind. The key is working together," Chesshir said.

Regionalism took on new meaning for the announcement that's coming this week.

The visitors came wanting to locate in Little Rock and nowhere else, Chesshir said. They had their eyes on the Southwest Airlines customer service center building, but Blue Cross & Blue Shield beat them to it. At first the visitors were reluctant to look around the region, but after a tour of the area, they were impressed enough to decide on another site in the region, he said.

The other announcement set for Sept. 9 will be a new business in Little Rock.

The region also has several sites that could be appropriate for a "super project," even for an auto assembly plant.

"I believe without a doubt that Marion will someday have a Toyota plant," Chesshir said. "But there are other automakers out there looking for sites, and we're actively working on getting an auto plant in central Arkansas."

"These days you have to have a site to the point where a company can come in and start construction," he said. Getting that needed infrastructure is very expensive, he said, but now, "with the passage of Amendment 82, we have a tool that makes us more competitive where beforehand we weren't."

Despite the success that's developing, Chesshir said the work of economic developers is never finished.

"I believe we're getting ready to see the fruit of labor we've put into this work so far," Chesshir said. "I see ripe fruit ahead. There's a lot of growth ahead of us if we seize the opportunities."