by Jon Walker
A rare opportunity for those eager to boost their local economy is coming up this this month: Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives (AEDCE), an association of who’s who in fiscal development around the state, is hosting the 2019 Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course at the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.
“Our target audience is anybody that is involved in the economic development process in local communities or from the state level,” says Shelley Short, executive director of AEDCE; vice president of programs and partnerships with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. “Sometimes that means that a person is the mayor; sometimes that may be a local economic developer that has been hired by a chamber of commerce. Other times it may be a different type of governmental organization that has some reach into the economic development world, like a Winrock International or a Delta Regional Authority.”
Short is in charge of the week-long course, which begins April 1st. Despite its start date, it is no April fool’s joke. The program is accredited with the International Economic Development Council—and is one of only 25 similar courses taught in the United States. Those who are eager to build on what they learn can continue their studies with the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) or the University of Oklahoma’s Economic Development Institute.
“It’s important that people who are working in the economic development stage have a good background of knowledge to work with and to help get themselves some good footing,” Short says. “A lot of people think economic development is just about recruiting, but actually, it’s much more broad. It has to do with workforce development. It has to deal with real estate reuse. There’s a certain amount of marketing investment that comes into play. And then you get into the idea of community development.”
Short makes no secret of new hurdles on the radar that both novice and veteran developers face in 2019. For many, equipping themselves to clear these hurdles makes the course not just an option, but a necessity.
“It’s not just within Arkansas, but across the country,” she says, listing larger issues.“The challenges to the work force, the development and delivery system, the skills gap that exists, finding qualified workers to fill positions that exist throughout the country… There’s also the shift from people living in more of a rural-type situation to those areas in our state losing population and most of the growth being centered in the northwest or the central part of the state.”
The population shift means that rural areas now have to up their curb appeal, seeking ever more sustainable means of offering a desirable quality of life to both existing and potential residents. Significant challenges also include making products available and finding open real estate sites for marketing to out-of-state investors.
The course offers much more than just situational preparedness, however. Whether you’re a part-time volunteer or a professional, it’s a great a way for up-and-coming economic developers to meet peers and start networking. Experienced developers are encouraged to expand their contacts, as well.
Sponsors of the course include Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives, Entergy, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, the Little Rock Port Authority, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Southwestern Electric Power Company. Danny Games, director of business and economic development for Entergy Arkansas, and Mike Preston, executive director of AEDC, are among the speakers who will visit the course.
Director of the Business Development Division of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission
Forrest City native Bentley Story, director of the business development division of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, has a lot of experience with big-name companies. His experience managing projects for Hewlett-Packard, Dillard’s, Windstream and Kimberly-Clark makes him uniquely qualified to be an instructor at Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives’ (AEDCE’s) Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course.
Story will be teaching “Project Case Study with AEDC” alongside Katherine Holmstrom. He describes the presentation as a blend of real-world perspective and the academic research necessary to help developers thrive in a variety of situations.
“No project is the same,” Story says. “As you see different projects that work, you see different curve balls that are thrown at you and different obstacles to overcome. In doing a case study, you get a good perspective on those things that happen and how to overcome them.”
Story attended the week-long program as a student in 2008.
“It was one of those courses that is really good not just for economic development, but honestly just for business in general,” Story observes. “I think it’s a pretty good course for anybody who’s entering the business world. It gives you a perspective of things that you may not be taught in a traditional high school or 2-year or 4-year college setting. You get a different perspective of business from the government side, so I think that it’s clearly helpful to know… How other people look at your business, your growth strategies and things like that.”
Clint O’Neal, executive vice president of global business at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission doesn’t just recommend Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives’ Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course, he sends new hires to it.
“There’s probably no better way within the state of Arkansas to spend a week just diving into the basics of economic development,” O’Neal says, “There are training courses around the country, but this one is every bit as good I would say it’s even better because you learn from some nationally-recognized speakers that are brought in, but you also learn from those who have been successful in economic development in Arkansas. There’s a lot of best practices that are shared, a lot of great insights.”
O’Neal sings the course’s praises from personal experience. His own boss sent him to it in 2008.
“Personally, it helped with networking and friendships, people that I work with to this day,” O’Neal notes. “Bentley Story is a colleague and a friend of mine. We went through Mid-South Basic together. We now work together back here at AEDC.
“It kind of gives you some case studies before you really dive in to the field of economic development and the opportunity to learn from others, to learn from stories of business expansions and business recruitment projects and workforce development initiatives that’ve been successful in communities across Arkansas and neighboring states.”
The AEDC doesn’t just use the course as their primary training program (as well as their go-to recommendation for local economic developers and elected officials they cross paths with), they also sponsor it annually.
Corey Parks is the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce’s director of economic development. Like many graduates of Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives’ Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course, he considers it a don’t-miss opportunity.
“I recommend this course to anyone looking to increase their economic development knowledge and build their professional network,” Parks says, “My advice to someone considering taking this course would be complete it as soon as you can. This course is an affordable way to kick-start your economic development career or get a refresh on the basics. Most importantly, graduates can immediately apply what they learn.”
Parks first learned of the Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course while working at the University of Central Arkansas’ Center for Community & Economic Development.
“I was told early in my career that the BEDC and Community Development Institute are the foundation for Arkansas’ community and economic development professional education. Having now completed both programs, I can confirm that everyone who gave me this advice was spot-on.”
Attending the class in 2018, Parks says, allowed him to connect with economic developers from other states. It also reunited him with classmates from his days at UCA’s Community Development Institute.
When asked to pick a favorite lesson, he does not hesitate.
“Sarah Raehl’s presentation has been the most beneficial because she walked our class through Deloitte’s five steps of site selection,” Parks recalls. “She also provided us a top 10 list for a successful prospect visit and how to better position your community for the short list.”
Attendees of Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives’ Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course will be learning from the best and the brightest this year: Shelle Randall, a development veteran with over 16 years’ experience in the field, will be teaching business retention and expansion alongside James Reddish, Mark Young and Ben France.
“If I was going to talk with someone about taking it, I would definitely highly recommend it, and I would tell them that it can be such a great foundation of knowledge of this business,” Randall says of the week-long workshop. “It will help them understand some of the challenges and opportunities of any economic developer, if they work with one. If they’re a politician and they want to understand more about the economic development field or if they’re a practitioner themselves, this can really be a boost and help them as they advance.”
Randall is director of workforce development and existing industry at the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce. She is also an alumnus: she attended the course in 2011.
“It gave me a wonderful basis of knowledge for those different disciplines that as an economic development professional, you really need to understand,” Randall says of her student days. “There’s marketing, there’s small business and entrepreneurship development, there’s finance, there’s real estate, there’s work force development, there’s attraction, there’s business retention and expansion. All of those different subject matters are important for an economic developer to have a good grasp of, and that course gave me an opening into all of those.”
Hot Springs’ Gary Troutman is a hometown-boy-makes-good success story. Before he was president and CEO of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Metro Partnership, however, he was an attendee at Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives’ Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course.
“It was a launching pad to about 85 percent of my current job duties,” Troutman says of the week-long workshop. “It also gave me a higher degree of confidence with the insight gained from 4½ days of immersed learning.
“No matter your background, the class shows you there’s so much to learn in the ED industry and that it’s highly competitive. If you don’t learn all you can, and quickly, you and the community you represent will get left behind. I already had a sense of urgency getting into this career relatively late in life, but this class even sped up my timetable to learn and learn fast.”
Troutman has gone on to learn both fast and prolifically; we interviewed him as he was returning from Baltimore, Maryland, where he had just finished the fourth of six International Economic Development Council (IEDC) classes. Completing the IEDC curriculum will allow him to obtain his CEcD, making him a certified economic developer. He is also two years into a four-year course of study with the University of Arizona in Tucson’s Institute for Organization Management, which trains leadership in association with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“There are projects, jobs and futures at stake,” Troutman says. “I want to serve my community to the absolute best of my ability.”
Nathan Reed, vice president of economic development at the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce, is a graduate of Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives’ Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course in March 2018.
“I knew when I started at the Chamber I would need to grow my knowledge in Economic Development,” Reed says, “Everything pointed to this course as the first step.”
Reed took the course a year after accepting his first position with Siloam Springs.
“I strongly recommend this course to economic developers,” Reed says of the opportunity. “But I also recommend it to people working in any role with a chamber or within the community development areas of cities. This course is valuable for more than your traditional economic development… It has also helped me shape the way I see and think about economic development. This class opened my eyes to several different ways of doing the same thing with each having its own pros and cons.
The decision to attend, Reed notes, has definitely paid off in the long run, too.
“I knew when I started at the chamber I would need to grow my knowledge in economic development and everything pointed to this course as the first step… I have developed a workforce program for our community from ideas that came from this training. I knew a rough idea of what I wanted to do, but specific classes in this course helped me see the vision more clearly and implement it.”
Crystal Johnson, president and CEO of the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce, highly recommends Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives’ Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course.
“I use what I learned with Basic every day,” Johnson says of the experience. “The majority of our work at the chamber, I would say, is 75 percent community and economic development—so all of the fundamentals that I learned at Basic I apply. Especially when it comes to our website and making sure that we’re prepared for any site selector that may be interested in the area, making sure that they have the information that they need.”
Johnson took the week-long course in 2012. She has been with the Batesville chamber since 2009.
“It really taught me that building your professional network is almost more important than knowing what the latest trends are,” she reflects. “I was looking at the agenda (before this interview) and several of the people that I went through Basic with are now giving back and teaching. They’re some of the same people that I talk to, if not every week, at least every month… We’ll go through the rest of our careers together and it’s pretty neat that we met each other through Basic.”
Johnson is such a fan of the course’s curriculum, leadership and benefits that as we interviewed her, she was pondering a second helping.
“Now that AEDCE is managing the course, I am excited about the future of Basic,” Johnson says. “I actually thought I might take it again. The agenda is very strong… There’s great content and it never hurts to have a refresher.”