Area civic leaders and city heads heard from Arkansas’ leader in economic development during three special sessions at the Alma Community Center on Wednesday.
Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, spoke directly to the Alma Planning Commission and its visionary group, Alma Rotary Club and several mayors on Alma’s economic assets and ways the area could work toward economic growth.
Preston, who was appointed to the position by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March 2015, is regarded as the leading advocate for economic development, said State Rep. Charlotte Douglas, who introduced Preston to his audience.
“What I’ve been most impressed about,” Douglas said during the introduction, “is what Mr. Preston and Mr. Hutchinson have been doing in reaching out to other countries, because it’s not just about what we do here - we live in a global economy.”
In his first year with AEDC, Preston and Hutchinson made business recruitment trips to Cuba, Japan, China, France, Germany, New York City and Silicon Valley, Preston said. The results of those trips are more than 100 companies locating or expanding operations in Arkansas, $2 billion in capital investment and the creation of 6,000 new jobs, he said.
Preston spoke on the topic of a global economy, and what Alma can do to market itself worldwide.
“You’ve got to think of Alma and Crawford and Sebastian counties with really a regional approach,” Preston said. “You have to present yourselves as much bigger than you really are.”
Preston extolled some of the assets of the area, such as river, railroad and interstate access, and told his audience the best way to bring companies to the area is to create building mega-sites that are ready to be developed.
Even if Alma does not grow a large industrial base, it can still do well in housing by presenting itself as a vibrant community with a high quality of life for its residents with green spaces and a bustling downtown to attract younger professionals, Preston said.
“Part of the objective of a planning commission is thinking about the next generation and what’s attractive to them,” Preston said.
Douglas asked how area leaders could package the region’s qualities and what help they might expect at the state level.
“Tell us what’s going to be great about your community, help us with marketing,” Preston said. “Be proud of your city, brag about it.”
Information about the area and its attractions would go on the state’s website and be promoted globally, Preston said. The state could also work with the community on prepping potential industrial sites, he said.
Ed Thicksten, a former state representative and member of Alma’s visionary group, worked with Douglas to bring Preston to Alma, he said.
Thicksten wanted Preston to bring some new ideas to Alma, along with a statewide perspective, he said.
Preston heard from those attending the meetings before he spoke, and most said they were looking to see Alma grow and prosper.
“You can really see the attitudes in Alma changing over the last few years,” said Brian Huff, the newly installed Alma Area Chamber of Commerce director. “Everyone is ready for growth and for Alma to change, I think.”