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Traveling the Globe in Search of Jobs (Mike Preston Commentary)

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Over the last year, your Arkansas Economic Development Commission has traveled almost 20,000 miles around the world searching for good-paying jobs for the people of Arkansas. It’s a reflection of the times in which we live. Ours is a global economy, and the competition for new jobs is no longer with surrounding states only, but with every country around the globe.

We’ve been to France, Japan, Cuba, China and Britain. In the past 18 months, we’ve visited Germany twice, and in July we opened our European economic development office in Berlin, which will provide us with greater access to European governments and business leaders. (For more on that, see this week’s Executive Q&A with the director of AEDC’s Berlin office.)

Our intentional international efforts are reaping benefits. For example, our persistence in China helped lure the Shandong Sun Paper Industry to Arkadelphia in Clark County. One year from now, the company will begin construction on a $1 billion state-of-the-art paper manufacturing facility that will create an estimated 250 jobs at an annual average salary of $52,000. For perspective, the average annual household income in Arkansas is $40,600.

Also, after the Paris Air Show in 2015, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced an expansion at its plant in Calhoun County. The company, which makes aerospace and defense products, invested $18 million and added 85 full-time jobs.

While all of this is exciting news for the state, we are forever mindful that companies already doing business here form the backbone of our economy. A big part of what we do at AEDC is to make sure our existing businesses have the tools required to grow and thrive in Arkansas.

The Bekaert plant in Rogers, for instance, added 100 jobs earlier this year as it grows its business of producing steel cord for the tire industry. Metova, a cybersecurity solutions company, added 30 jobs at a new Fayetteville office in February. And Remington’s ammunition plant in Lonoke created 84 new positions for Arkansas workers.

Whether it be relocations or expansions, Arkansas is moving to the top of the list of places where companies want to conduct business. What is it about our state that is so attractive?

When Gov. Asa Hutchinson took office in January 2015, job development became his No. 1 priority. In fact, on his first day in office, the governor called six CEOs to sell the benefits of doing business in Arkansas. A year later, one of those companies, Sig Sauer, announced that it’s locating an ammunition facility in Jacksonville. Having a proactive governor has been a big part of Arkansas’ success.

Our state is also known for its ease and low cost of doing business. Hutchinson has taken steps to create a business-friendly environment by removing bureaucratic hurdles that often hinder the process.

Combined with our location in the heart of America, a market-relevant workforce, modern infrastructure, various transportation options, the availability of buildable sites, occupant-ready facilities and an unmatched quality of life — Arkansas is earning a consistent presence on short lists for companies looking for new locations.

The results of relocation and expansion efforts are tangible. The unemployment rate is at an all-time low of 3.8 percent, and 54,000 more Arkansans are working today than at the start of 2015. While all of this is good news, the daily challenge we face now is how to continue this upward momentum.

Earlier this year, AEDC adopted a new and innovative branding campaign called “Arkansas Inc.,” which is accompanied by the tagline “Good Company.” The goal is to position AEDC as a strategic partner and invite businesses to join the elite company of industry icons such as Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt, Dillard’s, Acxiom and Riceland.

Our state will be showcased in October when Little Rock plays host to the Site Selectors Guild Fall Forum. Simply put: We’ll have the home-field advantage. Site selection consultants from all over the world will be here for three days and will be exposed to everything Arkansas has to offer. This is an important group of people because companies looking to relocate or open new operations rely heavily on their advice.

Yes, we’ve traveled 20,000 miles around the world to tell the Arkansas story and bring jobs back home to the people of our great state. We have about 11,500 more miles to go before the end of the year. Your AEDC will go wherever we must and whenever we must to improve the economy of Arkansas and, thus, improve the quality of life of its people.

Mike Preston is the director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Email him at MPreston@ArkansasEDC.com.
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