Guest blog post by Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Raymond Burns
Three-of-the-six Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Arkansas are located within 16 miles of each other along Interstate-49. Northwest Arkansas also supports one of the highest concentrations of such companies of any region in the United States, except for Manhattan. More than half of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies maintain at least a presence here. Every one of these companies and other major employers located in Northwest Arkansas are competing with other states and regions for the required talent to sustain and grow their operations.
An increasingly competitive global marketplace continues to drive the demand for a talented workforce in NWA, and this necessitates continuous investments in the principles of free trade, workforce development, infrastructure, and quality of life to grow our region. However, the vitriolic political environment, fueled primarily by strict adherence to major political party ideology, is making the institutions that comprise our federal and state governments increasingly difficult for business to maneuver.
In 1967, John Paul Hammerschmidt began serving the first of his 13 terms in Congress with another freshman congressman from Texas named George H.W. Bush, and over the years they became very close friends. One of the early projects Congressman Hammerschmidt began working on was obtaining the funding for the design and construction of I-49, which would safely connect the communities of Northwest Arkansas to each other, and ultimately to the rest of the state. At the urging of Sam Walton, along with Don Tyson, and JB Hunt, Congressman Hammerschmidt also began working to obtain the funding for construction of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. To begin the process of obtaining financing for the regional airport, the Northwest Arkansas Council was created in 1990. President George H.W. Bush included the funding for the construction of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in his final budget. Thereafter, Northwest Arkansas would be connected to the world. In 1998, President Bill Clinton, who once challenged Congressman Hammerschmidt for election in 1974, flew back to his home state to dedicate the completed airport.
Over the last few decades, major projects, including the creation of Beaver Lake, the construction of I-49, the funding of the Bella Vista Bypass, the Razorback Greenway, and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, have all played a significant role in the development of our region. The phenomenal growth we have enjoyed would not have been possible without bipartisan cooperation and support for these projects in Congress.
On a state level, the work of two good friends, former Democratic State Representative David Matthews and the late Republican State Representative Dick Barclay, sponsored enabling legislation and procured the state funding to make possible the creation of NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Subsequent Republican and Democratic legislators from NWA have since made it possible for the establishment of UAMS Northwest, and for the expansion of the research mission and growth of the University of Arkansas.
In the 2012 election, voters in Benton and Washington Counties approved with overwhelming support the ½ cent tax dedicated for highway construction. The highway funds approved in that election flowed into Northwest Arkansas and allowed the funding of the additional lanes on I-49, currently nearing completion between Fayetteville and Bentonville.
Now, try to imagine businesses in Northwest Arkansas functioning without even one of these major federal or state projects previously mentioned. For decades, the need for all these projects was driven by the vision and leadership of individuals and members of the business community in NWA working in accord for the good of all of our citizens.
Recently the United States Chamber of Commerce announced its efforts to begin rebuilding the political center, which has all but disappeared in Congress today. We have been fortunate that the Arkansas General Assembly is not as sharply divided as Congress, but the divisive atmosphere of Washington has been showing signs of creeping into our state legislature. The business community, represented by the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber, has traditionally been non-partisan when it comes to advancing regional issues for our area because we are still joined by a broad set of common values. Ironically, the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Chamber of Commerce have even been accused by legislators, and some political groups, of being too liberal or being too conservative on issues - sometimes in the same week of a legislative session.
Some of the most innovative business leaders in the world have made their dreams a reality in Northwest Arkansas, and by doing so, they have positively transformed this region for generations to come. The business community in our nation, our state, and in our region needs collaboration, continuity, and a stable political environment, nationally and locally, in order to operate effectively and for the common good.