In Conway, Leaders Find Education at Root of Economic Growth

A skilled, educated workforce is key to attracting and growing business in a particular region. That was the message repeated by economic developers during a panel at Outlook Conway, an economic development conference examining various industries in the north metro region.

The half-day event, hosted by the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce at the Centennial Valley Events Center, was the chamber's first. It also included panels on commercial real estate, public projects and higher education.

The economic development panel offered insight from the local, regional and state level. The panelists were Brad Lacy, president and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce; Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission; and Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

Lacy highlighted growth in Conway and Faulkner County. According to Lacy, job growth in Faulkner County 2001-2016 was 26 percent, outpacing the U.S. (16 percent) and Arkansas (10 percent). He said health care practitioners and technical workers earn the highest median wage in the county, at $31.57 per hour.

One current driver of the area's economy is retail, as several projects of various sizes aim for grand openings. Among them: the $65 million Lewis Crossing shopping center, developed by Collett & Associates of Charlotte, North Carolina. The 441,871-SF project, at the southeast corner of Interstate 40 and Dave Ward Drive, is expected to open in the fall. It will be anchored by a Sam's Club.

Another project is the Shoppes at Central Landing, which is being developed by Jim Wilson & Associates LLC of Montgomery, Alabama. The shopping center, on the 150-acre former site of the city's airport, is in its early stages, with the city aiming to have some site access and infrastructure in place by the end of the year.

"We anticipate a lot of growth [in retail sales] as a lot of these retail projects come online," Lacy said.

The panel talked about the process of recruiting companies to Arkansas and the state's strengths and weaknesses. They all echoed a similar sentiment about the talent of the workforce.

"No matter the company, workforce and available talent always comes up in the conversation," Preston said.

In order to create that talent, Zook said that the quality of education is key.

"If you've got talent, you've got a chance; but if you don't have talent, you can have the greatest site, the cheapest utilities and the newest highways, but without the talent you don't have much to offer," Zook said. "You've got to have fantastic schools. You need excellent public education."

According to the panelists, less than 50 percent of high school graduates in Conway will earn a degree from a four-year college. But with three four-year colleges in the city, Lacy said he doesn't think Conway needs its own two-year or technical school.

"I don't think we need to reinvent the wheel … We need to partner with other schools and recognize that the shortage in skilled trades is going to be a real issue for us," Lacy said. "There's definitely a place for liberal arts graduates in the workforce."

Zook said people who don't graduate high school are significantly more likely to end up incarcerated. Because of that, he said, there should be more money invested into early education, like summer school programs for students not reading at grade level in elementary school.

"At the end of the day it's going to cost something – a whole lot more than summer school," Zook said. "It's a whole lot more expensive to incarcerate them than to educate them."

The panel also said recruiting and retaining a millennial workforce is based more on quality of life within a city than it is with other generations.

Preston said quality of life includes everything from entertainment and bike trails to restaurants and downtown living. But above all, he said, people who live in Arkansas must be proud of the state.

"Be excited about being from Arkansas," Preston said. "Be proud of our state. Tell people what a great place this is to do business."