OPINION | REX NELSON: A plan for Arkansas

The folks at Heartland Forward describe their organization as a "think and do tank" rather than just a think tank. Established with Walton money in 2019 to foster economic growth in the middle of the country, it focuses on innovation, human capital, entrepreneurship, and health and wellness.

One of its publications notes: "Since the Great Recession ended in 2009, the American heartland has experienced weaker economic growth than the East and West coasts. Yet many of the heartland's cities and metro areas are among the nation's fastest growing.

"While recognizing the differences between places in the 20 states of the heartland, we think it is critical to analyze the region holistically to identify common issues and solutions--and ensure heartland communities develop, prosper and aren't left behind. . . . At Heartland Forward, our mission is to unleash this potential and improve the economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating for fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusive growth, and improved health outcomes."

Ross DeVol is the Heartland Forward president. He spent almost 20 years at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank in California. He has been ranked among the "Superstars of Think Tank Scholars" by International Economy magazine.

After being named by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in April 2020 to head a statewide task force for economic recovery, Steuart Walton of Bentonville quickly determined that the 35-member group could be more than just a vehicle to steer the state through the pandemic. He could use the think tank to produce an economic development strategy for Arkansas, the kind of in-depth report that other small states could never afford. It's a remarkable document.

Heartland Forward has done the thinking. The "do" part will be up to Arkansas voters next year. For this document to become something other than a dust-gathering report, voters must elect legislators and a governor who actually care about advancing Arkansas rather than playing partisan political games while pandering to their party's base.

Extremists hijacked this year's legislative session. Those ringleaders, a number of whom don't have real jobs, chose to push cookie-cutter bills designed by out-of-state groups to fire up donors and raise more money. The bills had little to do with state government.

As a result of the train wreck that was the 2021 legislative session, along with the low number of Arkansans who have chosen to be vaccinated, this state has seen more negative national media attention than at any time since the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis.

The shame of it is that Arkansas is poised to do well if the right leaders are in place. With its abundant natural attributes, opportunities for outdoor recreation, lack of traffic and low cost of living, this could be the state that talented people are searching for as they leave the coasts. But events such as this year's legislative session and a virus surge caused by those not smart enough to get a shot will scare them away.

Smart people want to be around other smart people. What impression of Arkansas do they get these days? I hear banjo music.

Hutchinson fought the good fight, mainly against members of his own party who were intent on sowing discord in order to win approval from brainwashed adherents of the former president. Can you imagine the sad state of affairs if that group of legislators were to have a governor who agreed with them? That's why next year's election will be the most important in my lifetime. The outcome will determine whether this report takes flight and Arkansas begins to achieve its potential.

Working with DeVol on the report was Richard Florida, who's considered the world's leading urbanist. He has written such best-selling books as "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "The New Urban Crisis." In addition to serving as a senior fellow at Heartland Forward, he's a professor at the University of Toronto's School of Cities and Rotman School of Management.

Other authors of the landmark report are Steven Pedigo, who has founded research and policy centers at the University of Texas and New York University; Minoli Ratnatunga, a fellow at Heartland Forward and executive adviser at Star Insights, a strategic advisory firm in Los Angeles, and Dave Shideler, the chief research officer at Heartland Forward.

"The pandemic has brought to the forefront issues we cannot ignore or simply just acknowledge," Walton says. "We must act. So what does that mean for . . . Arkansas? This is a question members of the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force have been compelled to answer."

Walton says he called on the team of economists at Heartland Forward to do some "big thinking" on behalf of the state.

"The adage 'a strategy is only as good as it is executed' holds true," he says. "The thinking they propose is big. Some might even say aspirational. But as a state, we need to set our sights high, most especially for the generations to come."

The report notes that the pandemic "accelerated changes that were already under way, such as the ability to work remotely on a large scale and the necessity for high-speed Internet access to conduct commerce, obtain educational and workforce training, and access medical services. States and communities that are able to address these issues and adapt to the post-pandemic economy not only stand a better chance of recovering employment losses quickly, but they can also position themselves to benefit from economic development trends that emerged during the pandemic.

"Every crisis presents opportunities to think and act differently. This is the time for Arkansas to commit to transformational economic development plans and embark upon new strategic directions. Heartland Forward's objective is to provide guidance to state, regional and local policymakers and leaders that will position Arkansas' economy to rebound and expand at a faster pace than envisioned prior to the pandemic."

The report recognizes differences within the state. At least two-thirds of Arkansas' 75 counties are losing population. The only three solid growth areas are northwest Arkansas, the Little Rock metro area and the Jonesboro-Paragould corridor.

"Arkansas' economy entered the pandemic with disparate growth patterns," the authors state. "Northwest Arkansas was among the fastest-growing communities in the nation. Jonesboro has outperformed the nation, Little Rock and central Arkansas are slipping below it, while communities in the Delta and southwest Arkansas are losing population and resiliency. . . . We've attempted to create strategies to link statewide assets to distribute maximum benefit and impact."

Walton believes Arkansas has what's needed to attract more entrepreneurs and tech talent.

"It's not only a good place to start a business, it's a good place to grow a business," he told me one morning recently over coffee in Bentonville.

Pointing to what's happening in northwest Arkansas, he said: "You know you're winning when people move without a job. They come because they want to live here. Once they get here, they find work."

Walton says economic development is like building a business: "Find what works, and then double down on it when you experience success."

Later that morning, DeVol told me that a lot of communities have "lost their entrepreneurial zeal through the decades. We have to give people in those communities the confidence that they can do this."

This 77-page report should be required reading for every elected official in our state. They should study, ponder and then act. Will they? As I find myself too often saying in 2021, I wish I were more optimistic.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.