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Building Arkansas

Wednesday was an inspiring day for me. That’s because I was surrounded by “builders” during a day spent on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.

I’m not talking literally about homebuilders or construction workers. I’m talking about people concerned with building the Arkansas economy and improving the state’s per capita income.

In a world in which so many people spend so much time moaning, groaning, complaining and tearing things down, it’s always refreshing to spend time with those who want to build Arkansas.

The morning started in some of the classes that are part of UCA’s Community Development Institute Central. This program consists of a series of three one-week-long seminars that offer training in community and economic development. The program draws economic developers from Arkansas and other states.

Under the capable leadership of Kelly Lyon, UCA’s Center for Community and Economic Development serves as a key academic outreach program for the university. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, colleges and universities will play an even larger role than ever before in driving local, regional and state economies. UCA is certainly doing its part in that respect.

The day got even better because of the opportunity to have lunch with Phil Baldwin of Arkadelphia, the president and chief executive officer of Southern Bancorp, the nation’s largest rural development bank. Phil is one of our state’s most talented leaders. Under his direction, Southern Bancorp has helped spearhead countywide strategic development plans in Phillips County in east Arkansas and Clark County in southwest Arkansas.

The strategic plans and the teams of leaders those plans have created are transforming these two counties. The efforts already have generated more than $100 million in new investments in those counties and led to national recognition from the American Bankers Association and the Council on Foundations.

During the afternoon, the CDI participants joined business and civic leaders from across Faulkner County for that county’s version of the Arkansas Works Summit. Following a statewide summit, the governor’s office is trying to organize countywide summits across Arkansas. When it comes to the connection between education and economic development, I can assure you that Gov. Mike Beebe gets it.

As you would expect, the governor praised Conway for its amazing growth in recent years. But the Amagon native also reminded those in the audience of the need to lift communities up in all parts of the state.

“You are your brother’s keeper,” the governor said. “You are not an island.”

Gov. Beebe clearly understands the importance of the state’s two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Arkansas state government spent 16.3 percent of general revenue on colleges and universities in fiscal year 2008. Funding for higher education has increased steadily in the past couple of decades and is now on par with the national average for per capita spending on higher education.

We do a good job getting kids into college in this state. We just don’t do a very good job of keeping them there. For that reason, Arkansas still ranks 49th nationally in the percentage of adults with a college degree. It’s a ranking that must be changed if the state is ever to achieve its potential.

Gov. Beebe painted an optimistic picture, saying that Arkansas is poised to come out of the current recession in better shape than most states due to its lack of deficits at the state level and its recent economic successes in attracting businesses in the wind power industry, the information technology industry, the aviation industry and other sectors of the economy that could be poised for renewed growth once the recovery takes off.

In the words of Phil Baldwin: “If people tell you that change takes a lifetime, don’t believe them. If you’re doing the right things, you can effect change pretty quickly.”

The room at UCA on Wednesday afternoon clearly was filled with people who are doing “the right things.” May their numbers multiply.

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