by Sydney Tursky
Thanks to the work of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and a number of entrepreneurial organizations dedicated to economic growth, Arkansas has become a premier destination for those looking to start a business. In 2018, Arkansas was among the top-ranked states in the country to do business. When preparing to put down roots for a new company or organization, here are just a few of the best places in Arkansas to do it.
Arkadelphia is making significant strides in employment and economic growth, and city officials are ready to welcome new business to their small but developing town.
Much of the city’s economy is built around the timber industry, and though the unemployment rate hit 11% during the Great Recession, it has stabilized at 3.8% over the last two years. About 800 jobs have been created over the last four years.
“We’re seeing growth, and we have new retail business coming in,” says Stephen Bell, the president and CEO of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance and Area Chamber of Commerce. “The other thing we have that’s a little unusual is we have a half-cent county sales tax for economic development … We have incentives that we can offer to someone that starts a business in Clark County. We’re one of the few counties that has a county economic development sales tax, and it was approved by the voters of Clark County, so there’s just a general interest in seeing growth.”
Arkadelphia draws a lot of tourism from DeGray Lake, and both Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University attract new people to the area. Both schools grew last year, but Henderson, in particular, saw an 18% increase in enrollment.
City officials are especially excited about the new Sun Paper mill; the final permit is expected to be cleared by the EPA in late summer, and then building can begin. Construction will take two years with up to 2,000 workers, but once completed, it should create 350 direct jobs with 1,000 additional jobs created in the local logging and trucking industry. When the mill is open, there will be 600 trucks a day coming into the mill.
“We’re really positioned to see growth because we have the timber industry, two four-year universities, we’re on Interstate 30, and then we have DeGray Lake, so you would think people would want to live in Arkadelphia. We’re hoping so,” Bell says.
Batesville, the county seat of Independence County, may fly under the radar because of its small size – just fewer than 11,000 people live there. However, thanks to its close proximity to both larger cities and natural beauty, its growing economy and supportive community, the town is ready and able to welcome new business, says Mayor Rick Elumbaugh.
“This town … has been a very progressive community,” Elumbaugh says. “Seems like the last 10 years, we’ve had so many positive things happen. Our community itself has invested in all the infrastructure needs; now we’re getting positive growth.”
Three different manufacturing companies call Batesville home: Bad Boy Mowers and Spartan Mowers, which both specialize in zero-turn lawn mowers, and Intimidator, which makes utility vehicles. These three companies have massive facilities in the city. Batesville also recently got its first Hobby Lobby and TJ Maxx to much excitement.
The city also has a large poultry industry, which is as strong or stronger than it was 10 years ago, Elumbaugh says.
Batesville sits on the banks of the White River in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. “It’s really a beautiful community,” Elumbaugh says. It’s within a two-hour drive of Little Rock, Memphis International Airport, and even closer to outdoor fun at Greers Ferry Lake, Norfork Lake and Spring River.
Batesville is the oldest city in Arkansas, and the town’s leaders have worked hard to prioritize their historic downtown. Main Street’s Melba Theater was recently restored, new restaurants are moving in, and the library was renovated last year.
“It’s good to see things like that coming back the way they were in the 60s,” Elumbaugh says. “I’m excited about Batesville, Arkansas; I’ll tell you that.”
Thanks to a strong business culture in its historic downtown, extensive entrepreneurship resources and good quality of life, Conway is the ideal place to start a business, according to city administrators.
“We have a lot of things going on, but it still feels safe and small,” says Kim Williams, the executive director of the Conway Downtown Partnership through the chamber of commerce.
“We really do try to embrace the small business and the entrepreneur and help them as much as possible.”
Conway, nicknamed the “City of Colleges,” has three universities, including the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College, and Central Baptist College. The number of college students and recent graduates living in Conway brings the city’s median age to about 28 years old.
“We tend to not lose a lot of our college grads,” Williams says. “They want to stay here and raise their families because Conway is such a great place to do that.”
However, even as the town’s number of young residents grows, so is the number of older people. More and more baby boomers are choosing to stay in Conway after they retire, and this age diversity is a great boost for businesses that can appeal to multiple markets, Williams says.
“I think that interests people,” she says. The city’s location along the interstate is a boon for business as well. “People don’t necessarily have to go all the way to Little Rock to do their shopping. We have all those bigger box stores that people used to have to go there for, and the mom and pop stores are backing those larger retail stores.”
Conway’s downtown area supports many local businesses, and some have been there for more than 40 years. Over the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been an increase in entrepreneurs opening new businesses there as well, Williams says.
“The downtown Conway area has been able to retain its historic fiber,” she says. “We never lost our good retail core, even when the Walmarts and all that were coming into town. We always had a very strong core of retailers in the downtown area.”
For new business owners, Conway’s system of entrepreneurial support programs is extremely helpful, Williams says. Startup Junkie’s Conductor, UCA and Hendrix all have active mentorship programs, and Conductor also provides a free makerspace and other services to any entrepreneur that needs them.
“It’s a little bit cheaper to do business in Conway,” Williams says. “People coming from outside see that it’s not quite as expensive to start a business and stay in business once you’ve started it here too. The professors and folks really try to work with graduates, or just anybody, to try to help them move forward. It just feels like home.”
Fayetteville’s economy is growing at a rate of a business a day, but there’s no sign of oversaturation; city officials are eager to keep up with demand and encourage new business at every opportunity.
Fayetteville is a great place to start a business because it is a great place to live, says Devin Howland, the city’s director of economic vitality. This month, U.S. News and World Report named Fayetteville the fourth best place to live in the country.
“Fayetteville is an absolutely beautiful city from an aesthetic standpoint, and truly a wonderful place to live,” Howland says. “If you build a place where people want to live, you’re going to build a place where businesses want to be.”
Fayetteville already has a strong entrepreneurial culture, fostered by the city’s partnerships with Startup Junkie, the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center and the University of Arkansas. All of the research, support, events and resources from these organizations benefit entrepreneurs and help them get their ideas off the ground, often at no cost.
“The University of Arkansas … is just a huge economic driver in our region,” says Haley Allgood, executive director of Startup Junkie Foundation. “And that close proximity to the students and the talent that you really need when you are starting your business is just fantastic.”
Fayetteville residents are on board with the city’s economic growth; they passed a bond program in early April to renew the city’s one-cent sales tax, generating an estimated $226 million for various improvement projects, including a new cultural arts corridor. The downtown urban park space will feature a multi-use events facility, stage, garden and art.
In other cities of similar size to Fayetteville, parks like these have served as “massive catalysts for economic development,” Howland says. “Businesses flock to these areas because people flock to these areas.”
With the advent of a national museum and renewed efforts to improve the economy, Fort Smith is preparing for an influx of visitors and, it is hoped new business.
“The U.S. Marshals Museum is using part of our past to celebrate our future,” says Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’ll change not just the face of tourism but the entire face of tourism, and I’m thoroughly convinced that it’ll change the riverfront.”
The U.S. Marshals Museum is set to open along the Arkansas River this fall, and officials expect 125,000 visitors in a stable year. More than half of that traffic will be tourists coming from farther than a two-hour drive away, according to the museum’s website.
“We can’t wait for it to get finished so we can start bringing in bus groups and convention groups and just general tourists,” Legris says. “It’s making Fort Smith really an up and comer. It was kind of stagnant for a while, but it’s growing.”
Recent developments in the downtown area, especially in the arts, have opened new business opportunities as more people head there to take in the giant murals or visit the brand new, world-renowned bike and skate park, says Talicia Richardson, the executive director of 64.6 Downtown, a private non-profit committed to revitalizing the area.
Additionally, the new Chaffee Crossing development is exploding, Legris says. Combining commercial, residential and industrial spaces just off I-49, the area presents exciting new opportunities for entrepreneurs in a section of the city that, just a few years ago, was mostly a collection of defunct army barracks.
The Chaffee Crossing development team, the city’s Central Business Improvement Team, 64.6 Downtown and the chamber of commerce are all collaborating to get the city prepared for all the anticipated increase in tourism and business.
“Now there is more of a strong emphasis to try to expedite this revitalization effort in a smaller amount of time,” Richardson says.
NORTH LITTLE ROCK
North Little Rock is “a community that’s open to helping new businesses be successful,” and its supportive atmosphere makes it the perfect place to start a new business, according to the president and CEO of the city’s chamber of commerce, John Owens.
“It’s easy to get things done here,” Owens says. “We’re a big part of Pulaski County, but we’re still a small, tightly knit business community and city. It’s easy to have access to people that can help you. We have one of the largest chambers of commerce in the state of Arkansas. The council members and the mayor are very business friendly, and everything from zoning to city services understands the importance of making it easy for people to meet their requirements in their business.”
With extremely close proximity to Little Rock and easy access to other central Arkansas cities like Jacksonville and Cabot, the city is well-positioned for business and is seeing a lot of retail growth, especially in its historic downtown.
The new Argenta Plaza is under construction downtown, Owens says. The 34,320-square-foot urban park space will feature a large square, stage and fountain, porch swings and a multi-use facility for events. Many businesses are following this project and moving to the downtown area, including Taggart Architects and the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.
As more apartment buildings have been constructed in the past two years and fun businesses like The Joint Theater and Coffeehouse have gained popularity, “there’s just more to do downtown. It’s just drawing more people to our downtown area,” Owens says.
The city is also preparing for an expansion of its medical corridor near McCain Mall, where CARTI just broke ground on a new cancer treatment facility last week.
“As our community continues to grow, it’s really important that we all work together to support our local businesses,” Owens says.