Texarkana officials agree that if and when the long-planned extension of Interstate 49 from Texarkana to Fort Smith is completed, it will be a boon for the economic development.
Until the concrete is being prepared, however — something that’s largely out of city leaders’ control — city officials are working on what they can control.
Rob Sitterley was hired earlier this year to run AR-TX Regional Economic Development Inc., a nonprofit group of local business, education and political leaders. On Tuesday, Sitterley met with business leaders and mayors of both Texarkanas to discuss the cities’ Competitive Communities Initiative project.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the program in March 2018 to help cities better prepare to attract economic projects. And developing I-49 would make Texarkana a much more attractive candidate for industrial expansion and commercial development.
I-49 “would make us far more competitive with one of the target sectors we are looking to attract, which is logistics and distribution,” Sitterley said. “That would be a direct pipeline, north-south, that we just don’t have right now. Connectivity is what makes our region great.
“It would open up one more part of the South-Midwest that would be really crucial to us.”
Completing the north-south corridor of Interstate 49 along the western border of Arkansas has been a longtime project of the I-49 International Coalition, based in Shreveport. Coalition President Curt Green lives and works in Texarkana and owns Curt Green & Co., a commercial real estate firm.
Interstate 30 already runs through Texarkana, linking Dallas with Little Rock and points beyond. Interstate 49 connects with Arkansas Highway 71 just northeast of Texarkana and loops around before heading south to Shreveport and on to I-10 in Lafayette.
“You bring I-49 in and, instead of having one interstate, you would have two interstates,” Green said. “The effects would be tremendous in the long term. Because we have so many highways coming through Texarkana that would connect to the interstates — 67, 59, 82 — it would become a very central hub. That would be ideal for manufacturing, distribution and things like that.”
Mayor Allen Brown of Texarkana, Arkansas, said the city has developed residentially north of the city, but better access could supercharge industrial development. “It is waiting for that fuse to be lit,” Brown said. “As you see with any highway infrastructure, cities tend to take off and boom. Anything that can get going, it would be a tremendous economic impact for us. There is a lot of property out that way. To get  approved and get it going, it is unbelievable what it could do for us.”
The lack of progress on I-49 is a result of a $2 billion price tag. While the state and federal governments work — or don’t work — on possible funding solutions for infrastructure projects, Texarkana chafes at the bit.
Green said traffic that comes to Texarkana from the south or west has to join the teeming mass on I-30 east because there is no northern outlet for the traffic. Highway 71, a two-lane highway that stutters through a succession of small Arkansas towns with reduced speed limits and traffic lights, is the only northern option.
“How would you like to leave the Gulf of Mexico and not hit one single red light until Canada?” Green said. “The Gulf of Mexico is the biggest distribution area in North America. We are sitting directly on top of the largest amount of product that spreads out through the nation. Whenever we drop I-49, which is a straight shot right through the middle of America, there is no way in the world that that thing is not going to be distribution heaven.”
The two-county Texarkana metropolitan statistical area has a population of slightly more than 153,000 and its unemployment rate was 4.4% in June, above both the statewide (3.5%) and national (3.7%) rates. Sitterley said job growth and economic development in Texarkana have lagged behind more robust Arkansas areas like the northwest.
Texarkana has a strong transportation system, Sitterley said, with highways, railroads and the port in Shreveport 90 miles away. It’s almost perfect.
“It’s just one more feather in our cap that will create the connectivity and road infrastructure that we will argue is second to none,” Sitterley said. “We are in the middle of a bunch of suppliers and parts manufacturers, and with 49 being finished, it will connect us in a much faster way.”
There’s not much that the city can do about the delay in infrastructure funding, but Texarkana has decided to do something about itself.
Sitterley said city and county officials in the MSA are working together to help promote economic development. He said the most important steps the region can take now are to start preparing industrial sites and to promote the area’s selling points.
“We talked about what we needed to do to be competitive; I don’t think it is a mystery for us,” Sitterley said. “We have an insanely great location, but we need to identify sites that work for large projects. We need to have them ready, not necessarily shovel-ready, but we need to have them pretty darn close so that businesses looking in the area give us some attention.
“That was the sentiment before I got here: Business will come here and we will find them the land. It doesn’t quite work that way, especially when businesses are trying to move at the speed of light.”
There are developable tracts of land north of town — the area that will be most affected by I-49’s eventual completion — but there are industrial parks west and east of town that are accessible to the I-49 loop or I-30.
“No street is a wasted street; no highway is a wasted highway,” Green said. “Growth will come, but you have to have those streets and highways and interstates to have access to make it accessible and make it desirable. Industry does not have to particularly be on an interstate. They have to have easy access to an interstate.”
Brown said the community meeting Tuesday was about “dissolving” the state line between the two cities so Texarkana can pool its resources as one entity. Sitterley said Texarkana is going to have a new website and a new marketing plan to highlight its strengths in education, transportation and health care.
“We haven’t told our story, ever, of how great our region really is,” Sitterley said. “We are not Texarkana, Texas, or Texarkana, Arkansas. We are Texarkana USA. We are going to win with that kind of approach.”