By Greg Nabholz, for Block Street & Building Magazine, Volume 6 I 2020
In my discussions with various community and state leaders across Arkansas regarding attracting and retaining talent to our state, I have made the comment that skilled workers with the ability to work remotely have the opportunity to have their cake and eat it, too, by being based in Arkansas where they keep their same job and salary but increase their buying power by parlaying a lower cost of living without sacrificing the lifestyle amenities they expect. Although most of these discussions on attracting talent were pre-pandemic, now more than ever is the great opportunity to attract workers to relocate to Arkansas. However, the competition from other states and communities across the country who are looking at strategies to do the same thing is growing. It is imperative that Arkansas seize on this prime window to attract skilled workers to communities around the state both large and small.
Three examples of real people who have discovered that they can increase their buying power and enhance their lifestyle by moving to Arkansas: I know an Apple Computer support person who told me that he and his wife were moving to Northwest Arkansas because Austin was getting too expensive and crowded. I know of another couple from Austin who work in the tech sector and who visited Hot Springs and ended up buying a house near downtown. There’s an engineer who made the move to live in Argenta from San Francisco who works for a company with operations in Arkansas and California making the same salary he was making in San Francisco.
In order to maximize this potential for bringing thousands of new residents to our state, a true statewide partnership that includes the private, public and nonprofit sectors should be brought together to create and implement recruitment strategies with plans specifically developed on a state, regional and local level.
The key ingredients for this to work are that cities and towns must make the commitment to develop a healthy ecosystem to attract new residents to their community and retain those who might otherwise move away. To do so, the state has to commit to enhancing existing economic tools that will enable communities and regions to create the places that will grow and thrive, and both the state and the local community must work together on providing incentives to this skilled labor force to move to Arkansas.
Developing this ecosystem includes infrastructure improvements such as high-speed broadband, downtown revitalization with “innovation hubs” as a centerpiece, enhancements to existing outdoor and natural attractions and a system of transportation connectors such as trails, rail, marinas and transient docks that connect communities and natural attractions regionally and statewide amplifies the potential to attract residents. Examples of these regional connectors include the Razorback Greenway, the Delta Heritage Trail, Arkansas River Trail, the planned Southwest Trail, the Arkansas-Missouri Railroad from Fort Smith to Bentonville and the system of existing and conceptually planned marinas and transient docks along the Arkansas, White and Mississippi River. Other important elements to developing the ecosystem include ensuring the community is welcoming to all types of people; that there is ongoing programming that includes education, networking events, and other activities that will grow, retain and attract talent and foster entrepreneurial growth; and removing barriers in to the development of restaurants and entertainment options by making changes to local liquor laws in those areas of Arkansas where the sale of alcohol is presently restricted.
The state can do its part by improving existing economic incentives such as the state historic rehabilitation, central business improvement district, and arts district tax credit programs that are all key to revitalizing downtown; enhancing other incentives to foster the development of the film and music industry in the state; and tweaking the job creation rebate program in a way to allow remote and other skilled workers who move to Arkansas to get the rebate on state income taxes individually.
Local communities can up the ante by working on public-private efforts to pay relocation expenses to attract remote and other skilled workers. Many cities, towns, and, in some cases, counties have economic development funds that could be potentially used for this purpose.
I have had the opportunity to work on exciting development and/or planning projects in Fort Smith, Rogers, North Little Rock (Argenta) and Conway, which have positioned those communities for major growth in attracting remote and other skilled workers. Clarksville and Mena are two examples of smaller towns that have the potential to do the same. Clarksville Connected, the city-owned utility, has invested in high-speed internet that is considered one of the fastest systems in the nation and the utility also runs entirely on power it generates from solar energy. A plan to revitalize Clarksville’s downtown with the renovation of the iconic Presbyterian Church into a mixed use cultural center and innovation hub as its centerpiece is being developed. Conceptual planning has also been in the works to turn the Old Mena High School building in downtown Mena into a mixed-use live/work development with apartments on the second floor and an innovation hub and other uses on the ground floor.
There are a lot of other communities and regions in the state that are in various stages of creating the ecosystem necessary to grow their population by attracting these remote workers and entrepreneurs. Northwest Arkansas and Central Arkansas have worked for years on revitalizing their downtown, creating innovation hubs, developing high speed broadband and enhancing their natural and outdoor landscape, but every town in Arkansas regardless of size, location or economic vitality has the ability to develop the place and ecosystem that will attract new residents especially now.
Imagine 2036, the year of the state’s bicentennial, Arkansas with a population over 4.5 million with all 75 counties seeing population growth since 2020, the state with five U.S. congressional districts, and a per capita income higher than all surrounding states. This could and should be Arkansas’s future!
Greg Nabholz is CEO and principal broker of Nabholz Properties Inc., a commercial real estate and economic development consulting firm based in Conway.