Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the keynote speaker at the conference on the future of the Arkansas Delta at Pine Bluff Convention Center on Friday, addressing representatives from a range of sectors who met to discuss the region’s progress and outlook for its future.
The conference, titled “The Arkansas Delta: Why It Still Matters,” featured a slate of speakers, some of them Delta natives, who brought their expertise to subjects like economic development, entrepreneurship, education, youth issues, conservation, health care, quality of life, history and infrastructure and their overlapping importance. The event was put on by Simmons Bank of Pine Bluff.
Hutchinson touted several of his initiatives impacting those areas, including drawing foreign companies to the state and improving computer literacy in Arkansas schools, and praised the work of Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and one of the day’s speakers. Hutchinson noted the state’s 3.5 percent unemployment rate, lowest in recorded Arkansas history, and 70,000 new jobs.
“I understand much of that growth is here in the Delta,” said Hutchinson, who took time to congratulate Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and the city’s voters for the community improvement and development initiatives Go Forward Pine Bluff and Pine Bluff Rising.
Hutchinson said he recently learned Arkansas leads the nation in foreign direct investment, which includes the recent announcement that China’s largest cotton textile manufacturer, Shandong Ruyi Technology Group, plans to put its first North American manufacturing operation in the Delta town of Forrest City. The project will create about 800 jobs and process 200,000 pounds of Arkansas cotton a year.
“That impacts the Delta,” Hutchinson said.
Other Chinese business deals in the state include Sun Paper’s $1 billion investment in a bio-products mill employing 250 in Clark County near Arkadelphia and a $20 million investment by Suzhou Tianyuan Garments Company in a Little Rock facility that creates 400 jobs.
Hutchinson said he enjoys visiting places like Cuba to pitch Arkansas-grown rice and traveling to China to not only tout Arkansas products and manufacturing possibilities, but the state’s tourism and opportunities.
Hutchinson recounted a duck hunting excursion to the Delta region he arranged for some of China’s representatives and said, based on his experience, the Chinese people are ready to explore some of Arkansas’ unique attractions after getting their fill of the United States’ bigger cities.
“It’s been fun having those relationships, showcasing Arkansas, showcasing the Delta, because let me tell you, we have a lot to be proud of,” Hutchinson said.
Former secretary of transportation Rodney Slater recalled the events in the late 1980s that led to the creation of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission — headed by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton — the forerunner of the Delta Regional Authority. The authority’s mission is to improve life in the region that touches eight states ranging from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico and its work drew praise from Hutchinson.
“The Delta Regional Authority has been an incredible partner in what we’ve tried to accomplish here in the state,” he said.
Slater spun an image of Arkansas’ highways and interstates as constructions not just of asphalt and steel but as technological and biomedical corridors transporting innovative materials while linking the state’s newest plants and factories.
“What’s your Highway 79,” said Slater, a Marianna native who recalled a childhood car counting game on the highway that captured his imagination. “What’s your Route 66? What’s your Yellow Brick Road? What’s your country road that takes you home?”
“Holistic growth” was a recurring concept and speakers addressed the Delta Regional Authority’s tent-pole categories of basic public infrastructure, transportation infrastructure to facilitate economic development, business development with a focus on entrepreneurship and workforce development and employment-related education using existing public education institutions.
University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander touted his university’s growth and improvement objectives and their impact on the Delta. Shane Speights, dean of New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteophathic Medicine at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, addressed the need for further health care education in the state and the university’s efforts to provide it, including the teaching of telemedicine to provide care for people in the Delta’s far reaches.
“The significant programs we chose are based on the needs of Arkansas and people in the Delta region,” Speights said.
Fitz Hill, executive director of the Scott Ford Center for Entrepreneurship & Community Development and Foundation at Arkansas Baptist College, closed the morning session with remarks on youth development. Hill, the former Arkansas Baptist president, talked about his efforts and policies designed to change mindsets and open up educational and workforce opportunities for troubled and at-risk young people in Delta communities.
“We’ve got to find places to build up, not put down, and we can not be scared in our community anymore,” Hill said.