October 21, 2015 Edition
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Mike Preston (right), the new director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, visits with Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp (from left), County Judge Dale Freeman and Chamber Board Chair Fran Cavenaugh on Friday.
TD Photo ~ Gretchen Hunt
Mike Preston, who is serving as director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission under Gov. Asa Hutchinson's administration, was in Lawrence County on Friday.
He met with regional and local leaders at The Studio in downtown Walnut Ridge for a lunch, telling those gathered he was honored when asked to head up Arkansas' economic development team.
A native of North Central Florida, Preston said he knows the importance of the rural areas of the state.
"I saw the impact of what happens when a factory closes or a store goes out of business," he said. "To me, the rural parts of the state are so important."
He said he is trying to get out and learn about the communities firsthand.
"I want to see what is unique about each community and what they want to accomplish," he said. "Hopefully, we can find prospects to fill buildings and build new ones."
He praised Walnut Ridge for efforts to bring revitalization to the community and promote the town, especially through its tourism development centered around The Beatles' 1964 visit.
"It is important for communities to have their own identities," Preston said.
He also said that global competition has made it even more important to think regionally and as a state.
"If we aren't marketing ourselves as a state, we will be beat by other states or countries," he said. "Regional identity is very important because what happens in one town helps the neighboring area."
He said the need to be able to show an adequate available work force also lends itself toward the importance of regionalism.
"We have to be able to look at the surrounding area," he said.
At the state level, Preston said some changes in the tax structure are overdue.
"We have a ways to go," he said. "Our corporate income tax is outdated too, and state income tax makes it harder to compete."
He said Arkansas is a small state, with a population of about 3 million, but there are some advantages.
"We can be fast and nimble," he said.
As an example, he discussed the addition of computer coding classes in Arkansas schools as part of Gov. Hutchinson's initiative to improve computer science offerings in the state.
"Arkansas is the only state in the country that offers computer coding in every high school," he said.
He noted that New York City has announced plans to have computer coding in all schools, a project they expect to take 10 years.
"We took 10 months to do what New York City is going to take 10 years to do," he said.
He said the state also has much to be proud of in its economic development efforts through the years, including seven Fortune 500 companies that were "homegrown in Arkansas."
"Our overall business climate is good," he said. "We know that, but we need to tell that outside our borders."
Following the luncheon, Preston visited the American Silica Plant near Black Rock, which is set to employ 60-70 people.
Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp discussed the importance of the new plant, which is being financed by private investors.
"Efforts working with our neighbors are paying off, but we also have more unity within the county," Snapp said. "That's the kind of progress we have to have."