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New initiative focuses on revving up small businesses, rural areas

by ANDREW MOREAU | May 16, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Two statewide economic development organizations are combining resources to boost small businesses and revitalize rural communities.

The Opportunity Arkansas initiative will promote opportunity zones in Arkansas and provide an avenue for business owners, community leaders and investors to submit job-generating projects. The statewide opportunity zone investment hub is supported by Winrock International and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

“We know from experience that small and rural communities are often overlooked because they lack the information needed to access and attract investment opportunities,” Linsley Kinkade of Winrock International said in announcing the program. “Opportunity Arkansas will help address that gap by providing easy, actionable investment information for areas of our state that need it the most.” The initiative’s primary goals are to help present investable projects; attract local and national capital; deliver technical expertise to local communities; and generate new business development and job growth.

Opportunity zones were created in 2017 to act as a catalyst for economic development and job creation in distressed communities across the nation. Governors of each state nominated low-income census tracts to become opportunity zones, which were then certified by the U.S. Treasury Secretary through the Internal Revenue Service.

Once an area is designated an opportunity zone, new investments in that community qualify for preferential tax treatment. In Arkansas, 85 census tracts were certified as opportunity zones.

“Many areas of Arkansas hold great potential if they can be connected to the right opportunities,” said Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston. “We’re excited to help provide a tool that does just that by bringing together communities, investors and other stakeholders to generate economic growth in Arkansas’ opportunity zones.” Opportunity Arkansas aims to increase equity in distressed communities by targeting investment to small and rural areas that lack resources to obtain external funding on their own and have traditionally been underserved.

Opportunity Arkansas will combine education and outreach efforts with technical expertise on project development, review and due diligence in local communities. The approach aims to help Arkansas develop, market and identify projects that are ideally suited for investment opportunities.

A new website will provide details for investors, partners and communities about the 85 zones in Arkansas. The site will be a hub to connect the targeted communities with investors and other resources that can spur job growth and creation, and boost economic development efforts.

More information is available at


It’s way past difficult to find one person who has worked at the same place in the same community for a lifetime. Arkansas County Bank and De-Witt have been fortunate to have “resident historian” Flora Sisemore.

The executive is retiring as senior vice president and loan officer after 60 years of serving the bank and the DeWitt community where it is located.

“Flora has been very instrumental in making sure we took care of customers and how well the bank has grown over the years,” said Warren Jennings Jr., president and chief executive officer of the bank. “We call her our resident historian for how long she’s worked here.” The bank will hold a retirement ceremony on May 24 for Sisemore, who started at what was then First National Bank when she graduated from high school at 16. Sisemore went to work at the bank and never left.

“She’s been a real blessing for us to have on staff,” Jennings said.


The Little Rock Venture Center is boosting its work with a key national partner, the Independent Community Bankers of America.

The organizations announced last week a new series of curriculum-driven events to expand the ThinkTech accelerator program run by the Venture Center and supported by Independent Community Bankers of America. The series will focus on emerging technologies that have the potential to improve the community banking industry.

“Community banks continue to demonstrate a thoughtful and progressive approach to deploying technology to meet the evolving needs of their customers,” Independent Community Bankers of America Chief Innovation Officer Charles Potts said in a news release.

The Venture Center and Independent Community Bankers of America have held three financial technology accelerators to promote and deliver innovative products and services to community banks.

The education programming begins Tuesday and will have three sessions on cryptocurrency ending May 18. The series will include sessions focused on community bank use cases, associated risks and the current regulatory environment.

The opening series is ideal for bank presidents and the institution’s C-suite of executive leadership along with bank directors and compliance officers.

The series costs $297 for Independent Community Bankers of America members and $597 for nonmembers.

Future topics in the series will include: banking as a service, piloting with fintechs and supporting digital transformation at community banks. More information is available at


A new national survey of small-business owners conducted in April noted that operators are growing more optimistic about recovering from the pandemic though many remained concerned about finding workers to fill jobs.

Overall, 59% of small-business owners reported job openings in April, up three points from March. About 37% have openings for skilled labor, and another 20% have jobs for unskilled labor.

“Where there are open positions, labor quality remains a significant problem,” said the study from the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Owners are raising wages and offering bonuses to attract workers though hiring remains a challenge.

“Small-business owners are seeing a growth in sales but are stunted by not having enough workers,” said Bill Dunkelberg, the organization’s chief economist. “Finding qualified employees remains the biggest challenge for small businesses and is slowing economic growth.”

Column ideas or recommendations? Thoughts or musings that need pursuing? Contact me at [email protected] or at (501) 378-3567.


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