The economic transformation of the Arkansas Delta is only $910 million away.
That’s the expected price tag attached to the construction of a 23-mile stretch of Interstate 69 in eastern Arkansas that would connect Arkansas City with Benoit, Mississippi. The stretch, which would include the Great River Bridge over the Mississippi River, would become part of an interstate highway that is designed to run from Michigan to Texas.
On the national level, the extension of I-69 would have major economic benefits for trade both within the U.S. and with Mexico and Canada. In Arkansas, Delta boosters envision it opening up the fertile but economically depressed region to more business development.
“I-69 would be awesome,” said Gene Higginbotham, the executive director of the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District. “The basic need — I guess the best way to explain it — is when anybody looking to expand or relocate their business, one of the first things they ask is ‘Are you on an interstate?’ Most of southeast Arkansas is not.
“Interstate 69 is a game changer for southern Arkansas. It stretches all the way across Arkansas. It will impact southern Arkansas, not just southeast Arkansas. It is going to help every city within 25 miles of that interstate, maybe even a little farther out.”
Improving infrastructure and economic development in the Delta has been a focus for Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Mike Preston, the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Hutchinson is the state’s co-chair of the Delta Regional Authority’s board of directors, and the DRA recently announced $2.8 million in grants for nine Arkansas cities.
“People throw this term out too loosely, but that really is the game changer for southeast Arkansas,” Preston said of the completion of I-69. “If you have I-69 built and running through that part of the state ... it’s around those interstates where opportunities lie for business and, thus, for jobs and created wealth. You get that in southeast Arkansas, and you’re going to see it really just transform the state.
“If there was $1 billion that fell from the sky or the federal government or wherever and we were able to get that bridge built and the rest of I-69, that’s game changing.”
Preston said that as important as the Great River Bridge and I-69 would be to Arkansas’ economic future, there are other smaller projects that are just as vital to the Delta’s growth.
When Preston and Hutchinson meet with domestic and foreign companies to discuss investment opportunities in Arkansas, it’s crucial that the state has “shovel-ready” sites. Unfortunately for the Delta, while there is plenty of land to develop, there’s not enough land immediately ready for projects.
That’s why Preston preaches to communities to make improvements to suitable sites with infrastructure upgrades such as installing water and sewer lines, utilities and improving any street or highway connections. He understands it’s a hard sell since making these improvements can be expensive with no rock-solid guarantee of attracting business.
It still needs to be done, Preston said.
“It’s a commitment you have to be willing to invest in, an investment in the future,” Preston said. “You have to be willing to say, ‘Hey something might not come for two or three years or maybe 10 years.’ If you don’t do this, there is a good chance that nothing is ever going to come.”
Preston used a 2017 announcement by Toyota Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. of their plans to build a $1.6 billion plant outside of Huntsville, Alabama, as an example. It was on a site that the state had developed years before.
The Delta has plenty of flat land that is perfect for large industrial plants, but that’s just the first step.
“There is a difference between having land and having land that is shovel-ready,” Preston said. “Infrastructure plays a big part in that. Do we have a site shovel-ready? Those are the things that we are challenged with. We do have a lot of land, but we don’t have a lot of good shovel-ready sites in the Delta. We need to make sure we focus on that.”
Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business, said strong infrastructure isn’t mandatory for economic development.
Walmart Inc. of Bentonville, J.B. Hunt Transport Services of Lowell and Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale all became major companies in northwest Arkansas before infrastructure caught up. Some could argue that infrastructure in northwest Arkansas is still trying to catch up as near-constant highway construction would suggest.
“It goes hand in hand with economic activity in a region,” Jebaraj said. “It’s not like you can go to a region where nothing is and drop a load down of infrastructure and say, ‘Things will happen here because I put this infrastructure down.’ What would have hampered growth in northwest Arkansas is if the infrastructure would have not come. But a lack of infrastructure didn’t keep us from growing.
“The infrastructure doesn’t lead the economic development, but it certainly can hamper economic growth if it doesn’t keep pace with economic activity. Something needs to be there. Something needs to be driving the economy of a region for infrastructure to continue to help it grow.”
Higginbotham said the region’s advantages should allow it to capitalize on improved infrastructure. There are already Arkansas ports on the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers and enough natural resources to influence companies to do more business in the state rather than ship out natural resources for manufacture elsewhere.
“You have two types of [regions]; you have southeast Arkansas Delta, and you have southeast Arkansas forest,” Higginbotham said. “You could work on value-added things for both where, instead of shipping raw materials out, you’re actually adding the value here and then shipping them out. It would be like Jonesboro. The same thing that is happening in Jonesboro could happen in this part of the Delta as well,” he said, referring to Jonesboro’s strong economic growth.
Preston said improving rail connection in the West Memphis area, continuing the upkeep of Arkansas’ ports and development of industrial parks in communities are examples of ways the state can remain competitive now and in the future.
“All those things support good economic development growth,” Preston said. “You have to have infrastructure in the ground before you can really begin to recruit companies.”