In Jacksonville, A New Cornerstone for Education, Economic Development

In Jacksonville, A New Cornerstone for Education, Economic Development
A rendering of the Jacksonville High School (file) (WER Architects/Planners)

The $74 million, 338,000-SF Jacksonville High School that opened welcoming 1,100 students on Wednesday gives an obvious boost to the city's education sector. But economic developers also see it as key to growing business there.

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, formed in 2014, is replacing all its schools. The $16 million Bobby Lester Elementary School, which replaced two other elementary schools that have been demolished, opened last school year.

Also planned is a $25 million middle school, a $17 million elementary school and two smaller, $14 million elementary schools. 

The rebirth of the city's schools brings to fruition a long-held economic development plan that includes attracting restaurants, grant money and extending a millage rate.

"Governors have touted this — that education and economic development go hand in hand," Superintendent Bryan Duffie told Arkansas Business. Duffie said schools produce the workforce needed to attract new businesses and industry as well as grow existing businesses in a community. JNPSD also welcomes industry partnerships for their expertise, because students need the access to become career-ready.

"It's a symbiotic relationship that, to be successful, both [the community and schools] need to be successful," he said.

Robert Price, the city's economic development director, agrees.

"We know that having a good school district is fundamental for having good economic development growth in a community," he said.

He said the new schools were a catalyst for the program he began leading under former Mayor Gary Fletcher. The first step was to organize a group of about a dozen local leaders to complete a SWOT analysis, a strategic planning technique to help identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The process took several months and resulted in a master economic development plan containing 13 objectives, Price said. The group then became a steering committee to implement the plan. 

One of the main objectives was to attract high-end restaurants. To do that, the city had to — and did — vote to allow drinks by the glass.

Other accomplishments of Price's office include netting a $400,000 cybersecurity education grant; successfully campaigning for the millage rate extension that will help fund the new schools; and getting a $500,000 grant Jacksonville from the U.S. Department of Defense to study Little Rock Air Force Base's operations, its needs and the development around it.

"We have ongoing businesses [opening] all the time," Price said. "Our chamber continually has ribbon cuttings. I think we've had two this week, another one tomorrow."

The community is close to announcing a few restaurant deals as well, including a Wingstop. But the biggest get could be a $42 million central Arkansas sporting complex, Smashville, built on 360 acres off Hwy. 161.

City officials once envisioned that property as a possible site for the Arkansas State Fair. Now, Price says Smash It Sports of Rochester, New York, is "committed" to bringing the sports complex to the city — and moving its headquarters there. The project would create 500 jobs, and the company would pay the city to manage it, Price said.

Price's office is putting together a business plan to present to potential investors and with consultants on feasibility and economic impact studies.

"This is a great example of one of those instances where you can have a master plan and you can work on all these objectives in the master plan, which improves the economic growth in your community, and then sometimes something just walks in the door that you don't plan for," he said. "Part of economic development is being flexible enough to respond to those opportunities when they walk in the door, and the Smash It thing is an example of that."

Price said the city is taking a regional approach to the sports complex project.

"When you think about economic development, you're not on an island by yourself. We know that we're tied together economically with Cabot, with Sherwood," he said. "Whatever affects us here affects them. And so you have to take a regional approach."

Ten months ago, Price formed a second group called the Jacksonville Business Ambassadors. The group includes community leaders like Duffie and First Arkansas Bank & Trust CEO Larry Wilson as well as several small-business owners.

The Jacksonville Business Ambassadors group drafted another plan with 12 objectives and has formed working groups to see those through.