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We Look Like Turkeys (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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An acquaintance in Texas posted on my Facebook page a link to an Associated Press report on the Boston Globe’s website bearing the headline “Dropping live turkeys from planes triggers Arkansas festival flap.” Her question to me: “They’re still doing this?”

Well, yes. Kelly Kissel, the AP’s Arkansas news editor, doesn’t make up stuff.

The dropping of turkeys from a plane hasn’t been a part of the official program at Yellville’s annual Turkey Trot festival since 1989, when a National Enquirer story drew negative attention. But some private citizens, whose pathetic lives seem incomplete without periodically turning live animals into unwilling projectiles, have revived the practice, assuring more negative attention.

And not just for Yellville; the dateline on the AP story as it appeared on Boston.com was Little Rock. And not just for Arkansas; the same story appeared on the South China Morning News’ website with an editorialized headline describing the practice as a “cruel and bizarre American tradition.” Cruel and bizarre, yes; an American tradition, certainly not.

A couple of days before the animal cruelty story appeared, Bloomberg News published a story that should give Arkansans even more reason to stop and consider our state’s image. The original headline on Bloomberg.com was “Wal-Mart Wants to Break Into the Ivy League Recruiting Circuit,” but The Seattle Times website published it under a headline that reflected a direct quote from a Penn State student from Connecticut who was interviewed for the story: “Wal-Mart tries to recruit Ivy Leaguers who view Arkansas as a deal breaker.”

This story was specifically about Wal-Mart’s efforts to recruit students from top-tier colleges to work in its growing e-commerce business in order to compete with Amazon. And the truth is most of those jobs are in tech centers like New York and San Francisco and Hoboken, New Jersey, the headquarters of Jet.com, the retail site Wal-Mart bought last year for $3.3 billion. So Wal-Mart may still have a chance at the young woman at Penn State. But what are the chances that she had actually visited Arkansas, even just the booming northwest corner, before rejecting our beautiful state as entirely beneath her consideration?

The fact that Wal-Mart is aggressively recruiting Ivy League students is itself a new and ominous development for a state that already exports entirely too many of its too few college graduates. “Historically,” Bloomberg reporter Matthew Boyle noted, “Wal-Mart found most of its entry-level executives at state schools within a day’s drive from its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.”

Wal-Mart clearly has no plans to abandon Arkansas. The company has announced plans to replace its famously spartan headquarters, and the new one will remain in Bentonville. Hallelujah! But on the same day the Bloomberg story appeared, Wal-Mart told investors that it would open only about two dozen new stores in the U.S. in the next fiscal year, the fewest in more than a quarter century. If Wal-Mart is investing more in e-commerce outside of Arkansas and less in brick-and-mortar stores, what will that mean for northwest Arkansas a decade from now?

I can’t keep track of all the new online initiatives that Wal-Mart has undertaken in the 18 years I’ve been editor of Arkansas Business, but the decision to acquire a successful online retail strategy rather than try again to build it out of the traditional Always Low Prices culture seems much more promising to me. Wal-Mart has the money to buy a new image; Bloomberg noted that its assets already include “millennial-friendly brands such as Bonobos, ModCloth and Moosejaw.”

But Arkansas cannot buy a new image. (And we’ll have even less money to introduce the state internationally if President Trump succeeds in directing visa fees away from the Brand USA program and to border security.) We have to rebrand our state, and we have to back it up with reality. We don’t get there when the capital city is rife with murders and its schools are under state control; when the good news in Harrison is that a racially divisive billboard was finally removed because a permit fee wasn’t paid on time; when legislators are charged with corruption; and when traditions like dropping hapless turkeys make international headlines.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.
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