Mike Harvey knew next to nothing about northwest Arkansas before he took a job as COO of the Northwest Arkansas Council in 2011.
Now Harvey is leading an aggressive campaign to change the fact that northwest Arkansas is still a “blank slate” to the site selectors who could be important to the region’s economic development future.
Harvey visited with about 50 site selectors in 2013 and plans to bring in groups of three to five selectors at a time later this year for guided tours of the area.
The so-called “fam tours” — short for familiarization — would give selectors a chance to meet with city leaders and chamber members as well as get a ground’s-eye view of the region’s infrastructure and cultural hotspots. Harvey said he plans to focus on selectors from Chicago and Dallas initially and then Atlanta and New York City because most of the area’s outside investment originates from those areas.
The project, part of a plan the council put together after Harvey started in August 2011, stems from survey results by Development Counsellors International. DCI polled more than 80 site selectors about their knowledge and perceptions of northwest Arkansas, and the results were striking.
“Half of them didn’t know anything about us,” Harvey said. “They knew Bentonville and Wal-Mart. We were a little bit surprised, and a little bit glad we were a blank slate.”
Harvey is fond of the term “blank slate” and it is a clear example of his optimism regarding the council’s determination to improve the region’s economic profile. In the realm of site selection, though, a lack of awareness can be a death blow for hopes of outside investment.
Harvey said northwest Arkansas gets most of its investment and business expansion from internal sources — “We’re a very organic market,” Harvey said — but bringing in outside business is vital, too. To bring in outside capital and job creators, the region had little choice but to improve its marketing to site selectors.
In today’s economic environment, some companies decide where to locate new factories or headquarters or production lines through the use of in-house resources. Increasingly, though, companies use third-party site selectors to do the hard-data research and on-site scouting to determine where investment money and jobs will go.
If those selectors don’t have northwest Arkansas on their radar, then those jobs have no chance of making their way to the region.
“If half of them don’t know who we were, then yeah, we need to do this,” Harvey said. “It’s hard to field fly balls without a glove. Companies don’t shop by city; they shop by region.”
The cities in the council area have been busy on their level. Steve Clark, the president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, said he has brought in individual selectors for quick 24-hour tours to highlight the city’s strengths and leaders.
Clark said the trips aren’t expensive, with what he estimated was an average of a $1,500 outlay, but could pay off in the long run. Decisions by companies about where to open a warehouse are often made after years of research and planning, so planting seed money now is a small price to pay, Clark said.
“What the council has done is responded to economic development in the 21st century,” said Clark, who has seen the DCI survey results. “Site selectors can get all the information they want online. We called selectors and said, ‘We want you to come to Fayetteville.’ They come for business on our nickel.”
Clark said one selector he recently met said he was impressed with Fayetteville but said if he been blindfolded and then shown the city, he would not have been able to tell the difference between Fayetteville and Columbia, Mo., and Columbia, S.C. The exchange was revealing for Clark.
“There are 50 northwest Arkansas around the country,” Clark said. “You have to keep yourself on their radar screens.”
Site selectors said that fam tours can help a region’s exposure for future opportunities, but the harsh fact of life of the new economic game is cold-blooded statistical analysis. What the statistics say about such things as a region’s infrastructure, transportation network and workforce determines who gets on the short list for the next factory.
“I don’t spend a lot of time in communities that are not a good match for my clients,” said Alison Benton of Aliquantus Consulting LLC in the Dallas suburb of Keller.
Benton and her fellow selectors did say improving northwest Arkansas’ profile is a smart idea. If northwest Arkansas makes the short list after hard data research, then a selector’s knowledge of the area and its business leaders is a plus.
“I go where my clients’ universe dictates I go,” said Dean Barber of Barber Business Advisors LLC in Plano, Texas. “It’s smart to call on site selectors. At the end of the day, you do business with people you know. You learn more by being on the ground than by being on a website.”
Benton compared site selection to solving a very complicated puzzle. Any additional knowledge helps solve that puzzle.
“It’s like having 12 jigsaw puzzles at once and all the pieces are in one box,” Benton said. “There’s some stuff that doesn’t show up in statistics.”
Del Boyette of Boyette Strategic Advisors of Little Rock, an economic development consulting company, said he had a hard time getting his head around northwest Arkansas being considered an unknown. He said it was important the individual cities in the region promote themselves and focus on what they do best, as well as work together to raise the entire area’s profile.
“Northwest Arkansas has become a brand in itself,” Boyette said. “Companies don’t see city limits or county lines. Promoting the region is critical. When something good happens in one, it’s good for the others.”
Benton said retail operators know all about northwest Arkansas because of retail giant Wal-Mart, and Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transportation are also well known. But there is a perception that northwest Arkansas is three huge companies, a state university and a bunch of mountains and “perception is reality,” Benton said.
Changing perception is important.
“There’s a lot more going on in northwest Arkansas,” Benton said. “It’s like Little Rock’s little brother.”
Boyette, who was born in Nashville (Howard County), is working with the city of Bentonville as a consultant to help put together an overall strategic plan for the city’s economic development. A city like Bentonville, Boyette said, needs to promote what sets it apart — cultural things such the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The cultural amenities can play important roles in a world of hard numbers. For every executive or vendor who relocates to an area, there is usually a family who relocates with him.
“You can do all kinds of statistical studies, but what’s the culture of the community,” Benton said. “That stuff works. Until they showed me pictures of the art museum, I had no idea that was there. Executives are fearful spouses will not be happy in a place.”
That’s one of the biggest goals of the fam tours in Harvey’s eyes. Yes, site selectors can find the cold hard facts about the region through data mining and Internet research, but what is the place really like?
If northwest Arkansas doesn’t do it, it will fall behind those areas that are not so modest. The region had the fourth-best rate of job growth by percentage in 2013, and a big reason for that was when Serco, which handles federal health care applications, opened a facility in Rogers and ended up hiring about 1,600 people.
“You get a big one every now and then,” Harvey said. “It’s hyper-competitive. Some communities are not going to want to do what’s necessary, ‘Why go hunting buffalo when you’ve got it all in your backyard?’ I believe some of my communities would go to the mat for the right company.”
Clark said the feedback he has received has been positive and cities and the region have to “keep promoting our story.” Harvey said it’s not a campaign of quick results and nothing is guaranteed, but improving the odds just a little is worth the expense.
“It’s a straight-up marathon,” Harvey said. “It can be a terribly long, drawn-out process. It’s just one of the legs of the stool, but it pays dividends for years and years and years.”