Under its new name, the Arkansas Economic Development Institute, based at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is refocusing as a proactive entity promoting economic growth in the state.
The name change, effective July 1, is in tune with the institute's revived focus on seeking roadblocks to economic growth and providing solutions, Executive Director Jim Youngquist said, as opposed to serving primarily as an economic research entity.
"[To] really do an honest look at the issues that are keeping us back," Youngquist said, describing the Institute's intent. "Whether it's infrastructure, high school graduation rates, whatever that might be."
The UA created the institute in 1955 when it was christened the Industrial Research Extension Center. It has also been known as the Arkansas Institute for Economic Advancement and the UALR Institute for Economic Advancement.
The name change and repositioning are the result of a strategic planning process that began in July 2016, and included a committee — led by business college Dean Jane Wayland — of 14, half representing the youngest members of the institute and half representing public and private leaders from around the state.
The committee identified needs in Arkansas that it felt the institute was poised to most effectively address, including public information, business intelligence, regional assessment and community capacity.
"What they came up with was they identified some areas that I felt like, in the nine years I've been here, we really needed to hit upon," Youngquist said. "We are the state of Arkansas' U.S. Census state data center distributing information. But have never done any analysis. Never done any ‘What does this mean?' "
The institute will strive to identify communities beyond central, northwest and northeast Arkansas that are ripe for economic development, Youngquist said, and to try to help those communities find ways to use existing platforms to enhance job creation and economic competitiveness.
"If there was a way to start developing assistance, strategic assessment," Youngquist said, "offering an opportunity to communities that already have a structure in place and with a few tweaks can become more competitive in job creation, then we need to do that. I've wanted that since I've been here."
In addition to the institute's new name, the strategic planning committee devised a mission and positioning statement to reflect its new direction.
"The mission of the Arkansas Economic Development Institute is to provide research and strategies to state, community, and industry leaders to promote economic growth and enhance the quality of life in Arkansas."
The positioning statement reads: "The Arkansas Economic Development Institute is the main asset for economic development information for communities and industry in Arkansas."
The institute has been pulled in different directions, sometimes by political forces, through the years, surviving some efforts to do away with it entirely and existing primarily as a traditional academic research center.
Youngquist said the name change reflects the institute's unique role as the only statewide, non-academic economic development resource and technical assistance unit. It's a direction in which Youngquist feels the institute has slowly and surely been headed at least in his nine years, if not longer.
"The biggest change is the fact that while we're going to respond to research and data requests ... the new direction for this institute is going to be far more proactive than reactive," he said, "so that we can be of more help and challenge the leaders in the state to think about 'Hey, have you thought about whatever it might be that you can maybe make better?' "