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The two states of Arkansas

We are two states.

The census figures released this week for Arkansas make that clear.

There are the northwest and central parts of our state, places that are doing relatively well economically and consistently gaining population.

Then there is most of east and south Arkansas.

Thirty-nine counties gained population during the past decade.

Thirty-six counties lost population.

Yes, in many ways, we are two states within a state.

Monroe County, where I hope to be Sunday night for the weekly wild game dinner at Gene’s in Brinkley, lost 20.5 percent of its population during the past decade.

Compare that to Benton County, which had a 44.3 percent population increase.

Monroe County has little in common with Benton County. They are almost as different as two parts of a state can be.

Pulaski County remained the state’s largest county in terms of population, growing 5.9 percent. But that growth rate paled in comparison to adjoining Faulkner County’s growth rate of 31.6 percent, the second highest rate in the state.

Other counties surrounding Pulaski County did well. Saline County grew 28.2 percent. Lonoke County grew 29.4 percent. Yet head a few miles away toward the Delta and notice the 8.1 percent population decrease in Jefferson County. As a city, Pine Bluff lost 10.9 percent of its population during the decade, falling below the 50,000 mark.

Back up in northwest Arkansas, Washington County grew 28.8 percent. Even Sebastian County, despite the loss of manufacturing jobs, grew 9.3 percent.

In a post earlier this snowy week, I discussed efforts to come up with a plan to bring some life to far southeast Arkansas.

When we discuss the southern and eastern parts of our state, we must remember that no one strategy is going to change the broad demographic trends that date back decades. There are, however, effective approaches that can be taken if we’ll allow ourselves to think differently than in the past.

Simply put, our definition of economic development must change.

The old strategy of obtaining government grants and using them to build industrial parks is no longer going to be sufficient.

The draft strategic plan for southeast Arkansas to which I referred earlier this week touts tourism as part of the solution.

Southeast Arkansas generally is not a place tourists consider.

“The state’s tourists typically visit Hot Springs, Eureka Springs, Greers Ferry, Mountain View, Helena-West Helena, Little Rock, the Ozarks or any of another dozen destinations,” the report states. “Those who do include this region of the state in their travels are, more often than not, merely passing through as they head elsewhere. In fact, Chicot and Desha counties actually have less market share of Arkansas’ overall tourism business than they did just a decade ago.”

The report goes on to ask two questions:

1. Why is this the case?

2. What can be done about it?

“As to the ‘why’ question, a lot of factors come into play,” the report states. “For one thing, there’s no getting around the fact that tourism has simply never been a priority in southeast Arkansas. With its strong agricultural base, the region was among the state’s wealthiest areas until four or five decades ago when mechanization completely transformed the agricultural economy and reduced the number of farm-related jobs.

“When things were going well, there was little impetus for community leaders to look at options to expand the area’s economic foundation. As the tide turned, the usual reaction has been to establish an industrial park and then attempt to bring in small manufacturing concerns of one sort or another. That approach, combined with the prevailing local assumption that the region holds no interest for potential visitors, has kept tourism off the radar.”

And how about the question “what can be done?”

The report notes: “That, too, is rather complex. The first thing to recognize is that the region’s rich and diverse inventory of natural and cultural resources has real potential to become a significant player in Arkansas’ tourism industry. With its long and growing list of attractions plus the 7,000 vehicles traveling up and down U.S. Highway 65 each and every day, southeast Arkansas is on the verge of having the critical mass necessary to attract significant numbers of visitors. Convincing the locals — leaders and residents alike — of that reality must be a priority before any successful advancement can be made.”

The plan points out that the consumers’ perspective must be taken into consideration.

“Leisure travelers need certain basic tourism products: things to see and do, places to eat and places to stay. Included would be outdoor adventures such as kayaking, ATVing and fishing; a mix of historic and cultural attractions; a variety of dining options; and lodging opportunities ranging from bed and breakfast inns, cabins and hotels to recreational vehicle parks. Supporting these essentials would be outfitters and guides for outdoor activities along with retail shops to provide groceries, souvenirs and other supplies.”

The plan proposes the establishment of a development group that would be structured so it could partner with government organizations, colleges, universities and other entities to make something happen. This umbrella organization would work to unify the region, provide more annual events, assemble financial packages for entrepreneurs and market business opportunities to those private investors.

“If the objective of the organization is kept fairly broad to encompass any relevant aspect of the Delta, it could sponsor events as diverse as fishing tournaments, musical performances, birding expeditions, museum tours and visits to historic homes and sites,” the plan states. “It could partner with festival organizers in the region to provide additional programming immediately before and after an event to extend a visitor’s stay in the area. It could help promote interest in a marina complex on the lower Arkansas River. In short, it would be involved in just about any proposal designed to offer improved and enhanced tourism opportunities in southeast Arkansas. Its overall mission would be to grow the regional economy and increase employment while elevating the quality of life through the development of new tourism products.”

Don’t believe for a second that this will be easy.

As the report states, “This corner of the state lacks elements commonly associated with traditional tourism development: beaches, casinos, mountains, a major reservoir or a large national park. Not only is the area not in the collective mindset of the traveling public, many of the local residents probably have little appreciation for the region’s tourism potential.

“In addition, the current economic situation compounded by the region’s lack of recognition as a tourism destination will make it doubly hard to convince entrepreneurs to invest their dollars in southeast Arkansas. Yet the right mix of public- and private-sector projects combined with an aggressive marketing and promotional campaign could get things headed in the right direction.

“While there’s an ongoing political debate about the role of government in the American economic system, there’s no question that public investments have served as crucial development catalysts for communities across the country. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg — two thriving Tennessee towns — would not be known today had Great Smoky Mountains National Park not been established in 1934. Closer to home, the Norfork and Bull Shoals projects allowed Mountain Home to embrace prosperity. Likewise, Heber Springs would most likely still be a small, sleepy town had Greers Ferry Dam not been built. In every case, once the public investment was completed, visitors followed and they, in turn, attracted a wide variety of private-sector involvement.”

Tourism, of course, is not the answer.

It’s simply one piece in a much larger puzzle as people try to improve the quality of life in south and east Arkansas. The biggest piece of that puzzle remains the improvement of public education.

Still, it’s apparent that what the good folks in east and south Arkansas have been doing in recent decades isn’t working from an economic development standpoint.

It’s high time to try some different approaches.

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