Arkansas policymakers seeking to bolster the state’s economic rebound as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic now have a road map for getting there. Heartland Forward — a “think and do tank” focused on improving economic performance in the center of the United States — published a report in July, the Arkansas Economic Recovery Strategy, commissioned by the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force. Informed by an extensive analysis of Arkansas’ strengths, weaknesses and qualitative data from interviews, the report found that Arkansas policymakers have an opportunity to demonstrate that Arkansas punches above its weight class and can be a national leader in many areas. Specific recommendation excerpts include the following:
Talent and Workforce: Arkansas needs to develop a cohesive and aligned talent creation, attraction and retention strategy. It should be tied to growing knowledge-based sectors such as data sciences, supply chain management, business services, health care, education and research and development. Leaders in the state need to take bold initiatives to transform the state’s high-skilled talent base, such as doubling the number of engineering graduates within 10 years and a proportionally larger gain in data sciences.
Innovation and Research: The state’s economic development efforts must embrace innovation as fundamental to long-term growth. One signal of the state’s commitment would be to increase and make permanent funding for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) and to identify and support ventures with high growth potential. The AEDC should realign incentives and metrics with knowledge-based economic development. Funding for the Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) to recruit faculty interested in generating intellectual property useful to local industries enhances the knowledge-based economy. Greater emphasis should be placed on the ARA engaging with private-sector firms to obtain additional funding.
Entrepreneurship and Small Business: Arkansas must support its entrepreneurs and explicitly incorporate entrepreneurship as a key strategy for growing and diversifying its economy. Additional funding of entrepreneurial support organizations such as the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center can assist in spreading resources to rural parts of the state. More emphasis on forming mentorship support networks is required. Arkansas should bring its personal income tax structure in line with neighboring states to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in businesses and reduce obstacles that encourage them to move to neighboring states.
Health Care: The state should establish a unique medical and research cluster by building on existing assets such as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS,) the two new schools of medicine in Jonesboro and Fort Smith and the announced Whole Health School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Bentonville, the forthcoming University of Arkansas Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R) in Fayetteville and the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) in Jefferson. Additional state funding should be allocated to UAMS’ Winthrop P. Rockefeller Institute to secure National Cancer Institute Cancer Center designation.
Supply Chain and Logistics: The report makes no recommendations on this topic, but notes that Arkansas has the third-highest share of transportation industry employment in the nation — almost double the U.S. average. J.B. Hunt, a leading U.S. transportation company, and other innovators in this space, such as ArcBest, as well as the global supply-chain expert in the U.S., Walmart, are all headquartered in Arkansas.
High-Speed Internet: Among other steps, Arkansas should increase funding for deployment efforts to achieve aspirational levels of internet connectivity for Arkansans and ensure expansion and upgrades of the broadband infrastructure over time, and should subsidize the cost of minimum standards for high-speed internet services where they are available.
The report, co-authored by Heartland Forward President and CEO Ross DeVol, Richard Florida, Steven Pedigo, Minoli Ratnatunga, and Dave Shideler, concludes in part: “Arkansas has the incredible prospect to emerge out of the disruption in an advantageous position. As people and firms ease back into the ‘new normal,’ time is of the essence.” The state needs to move swiftly on these actions, they said, “before people fall back into their old pre-pandemic patterns.”