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A Blueprint for Regional Success (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

3 min read

Two captains of one of the state’s most successful nonprofit economic development agencies shared some of the secrets of their success last week in Little Rock. Business leaders from all over the state would do well to take notes.

I’m talking about Nelson Peacock, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, and Marshall Saviers, president of Cushman & Wakefield/Sage Partners and the council’s presiding chair, who gave the Rotary Club of Little Rock a good 30,000-foot overview of the council’s mission — to advance the region’s infrastructure and quality of life — and its methods.

There is the perception in some quarters that northwest Arkansas caught lightning in a bottle and that its phenomenal growth over the past 30 years is an anomaly, something unlikely to be replicated anywhere else in the state — perhaps even the country.

Certainly the planets have aligned in Benton and Washington counties. There are two global giants — Walmart Inc. of Bentonville and Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale — and a national trucking leader — J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell — that are all three multibillion-dollar enterprises. And indeed it was the visionary leaders of those companies — Sam Walton, Don Tyson and J.B. Hunt — who formed the Northwest Arkansas Council decades ago. There’s also the University of Arkansas, the state’s largest university, a formidable economic engine.

But according to Peacock and Saviers, other areas of Arkansas can adopt the council’s approach. How?

► Get business leaders from every community. In central Arkansas, that means “not just Little Rock, but all around,” Peacock said, the entire region. And not just the giants, but businesses of all sizes.

► Be clear on the mission. The council isn’t a regional chamber of commerce; there are no direct member services. But businesses pay dues to support the professional work of the organization, which is to advance the region. Businesses don’t get a direct return on their dues, but they all benefit as the region grows.

► Start simple. Once you have business on board, Peacock said, “put some money into some research and figure out where you want to focus.” That means choosing one or two projects “that everyone will benefit from” and accomplishing them, he said. In northwest Arkansas, early council leaders wanted to build an airport and a highway. Doing so built credibility. “You establish a reason why people want to contribute to your organization and participate, come to meetings, give you money for staff, and then that’s how you build from there,” he said.

► Communicate constantly. Saviers said one of the council’s ongoing priorities is to conduct regular member polling, get feedback and collect data — all of which inform regional goals. It was that kind of work that revealed the need to create its nationally renowned workforce recruitment initiative, Life Works Here, and to focus on expanding the area’s health care amenities.

Putting those pieces in place will help everyone rally behind the effort, Peacock said. But the crucial element is the clear-eyed commitment of a business community working together behind a simple goal: to advance the region for everyone.

“You know, it’ll be hard for city council members or mayors in any of these communities to say no to something if everyone stands together from the business community that says, ‘This is what it takes to grow our region to make it a better place.’”


Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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