Economic developers across the state work behind the scenes to assist existing businesses, attract new ones and grow their communities. Here are snapshots of nine economic developers, like Katherine Holmstrom of AEDC, who work to make Arkansas a better place to live and work.
Steve Arrison, Visit Hot Springs
Steve Arrison likes to quote his friend, Bill Giest, who told him that tourism is the first date for economic development. As CEO of Visit Hot Springs, Arrison takes his friend’s words to heart.
“Most often that first experience — that first date — with a community comes from a tourism visit.”
Arrison believes quality of life and good infrastructure are a byproduct of a good tourism economy and attractive to economic-development prospects. He cites the 2018 opening of the Northwoods Trails system, which added more than 26 miles of mountain biking and hiking trails, and the Majestic Park baseball complex under construction on one of Major League Baseball’s first spring training sites.
“Babe Ruth spent his first spring training at this location with the Boston Red Sox. This will open up the sports tourism market for Hot Springs and return youth baseball to our community.”
Graycen Bigger, Northeast Arkansas Intermodal Facilities Authority
As executive director of the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority, Graycen Biggers’ duties include supporting and generating regional development efforts between Randolph, Lawrence, Sharp and Clay Counties. Biggers recruits new industry to the area as well as helps expand existing industries. One example includes the $35 million Emerson project, which brought 248 new jobs to Sharp County. Bigger also advocates for state and federal resources that boost workforce training and economic development in the region. In 2020, the Authority helped secure more than $14 million for workforce, site development and broadband expansion.
In addition, she manages regional marketing efforts, aids workforce development partners in creating industry-driven workforce programs such as CDL and gunsmithing, as well as strengthening the local talent pipeline.
Steve Cox, Rogers-Lowell Area
Chamber of Commerce
Some might consider economic development in a bustling region like Northwest Arkansas to be an easy sell. And while it is, promoting a region and guiding its growth requires hard work and dedication. As senior vice president for economic development at the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber, Steve Cox brings just that.
The state’s fifth-largest city with almost 69,000 residents, Rogers is an integral part of a thriving NWA region that continues to grow and attract national attention, thanks in part to Cox and his colleagues at the chamber. More than $60 million in private investment is in development in Rogers and Lowell alone. Rogers’ population has almost doubled since 2000, and its growth rate from 2010-2019 remains high at almost 23 percent. The metro population, meanwhile, sits at roughly 560,000. Last year, the Heartland Forward ranked NWA as the 21st most dynamic metropolitan area in the nation.
Jill Dabbs, Downtown Springdale Alliance
The former mayor of Bryant and small business owner in Central Arkansas, Jill Dabbs made the move northwest in January 2019 to lead the Downtown Springdale Alliance.
Downtown Springdale is a nonprofit formed in 2011 to promote a vibrant downtown. Currently, it is developing and promoting the Downtown Springdale Arts District to help enhance the city’s identity.
Since its creation, new ventures have located downtown, including retail, a film production studio, a school and restaurants. Dabbs’ vision is for the district is to serve the needs of the neighborhood while attracting artists and creatives to the area. Downtown Springdale also plans to partner with the Urban Land Institute of Northwest Arkansas among others to develop a housing strategy.
“Downtown Springdale has always had the makings of a perfect intersection for the arts, the outdoors, housing and culinary experiences,” Dabbs said. “We’re now really starting to see it take shape, and it couldn’t be happening at a more exciting time.”
Dabbs is an Arkansas native and earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Mallory Darby, West Memphis
Office of Economic Development
As senior project manager for the West Memphis Office of Economic Development, Mallory Darby is responsible for industrial and commercial recruitment and development and all related marketing. Since 2016, Darby has been responsible for the successful recruitment of projects resulting in more than 1,500 jobs created and $350 million in capital investment into the city. These include industrial, retail, restaurant, hospitality and tourism development projects. She was behind the selection in 2018 of West Memphis as an 1,800-acre Entergy Select-certified mega site, the largest of its kind in Arkansas. The city and Entergy Arkansas announced plans in October to promote the Interstate 40 site, and a new website was launched to chronicle documentation related to the site’s readiness. And on Jan. 5, the city cut the ribbon on a new distribution center for Carvana, the online car platform. The project represents a $40 million investment in West Memphis.
“Success in economic development does not come from one person working hard, it takes a team of passionate leaders who are willing to work together,” she said.
A graduate of Mississippi State, Darby came to West Memphis after serving as director of research and development with the Golden Triangle LINK in Columbus, Miss. She serves on the local chamber board and as first vice president on the Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executives (AEDCE) board.
Mat Faulkner, Think Idea Studio, Searcy
Mat Faulkner is not a public official, nor is he a Searcy native. But the Harding University graduate, who grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., is an economic developer and a true voice for his adopted hometown.
Faulkner is president of his own small business, Think Idea Studio, and also serves on the board of the Searcy Regional Economic Development Corporation, chairs the Searcy Regional Chamber Small Business Committee, directs the Think ART Project, co-founded Searcy Beats & Eats Events and serves on the Searcy Beautification and Holiday of Lights committees. In addition, Faulkner is past board president of Jacob’s Place Homeless Mission, and his business was named the 2017 Searcy Chamber Business of the Year. If that’s not enough, Faulkner and Think Idea Studio appeared on season four of Small Business Revolution, filmed in Searcy after Faulkner nominated the city to serve as a host city for the online show. TV personalities and hosts Ty Pennington and Amanda Brinkman filmed in Searcy for several months.
“Searcy has experienced tremendous positive momentum these last few years. Although it may be difficult to attribute this upswing to one specific catalyst, there are some definite key initiatives that have helped create a snowball effect,” Faulkner said.
Bethany Hildebrand, Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce
Bethany Hildebrand is the CEO for the Stuttgart Chamber, a 300-member organization dedicated to community and economic development. She began her career with the Chamber in April of 2010 as the director of programs. In 2014, she was promoted to CEO. As such, Hildebrand works on community and economic development with the Stuttgart Industrial Development Corporation and the City of Stuttgart.
Her job responsibilities include providing strategic leadership and vision for the chamber, as well as facilitating community and economic growth in the city and supporting an environment for new and current businesses to thrive.
The chamber’s new websites have played an important role in promoting Stuttgart to out-of-town visitors and helping cement its reputation as the duck hunting capital of the world. The chamber also works with Stuttgart Unlimited, an organization of business and professional people working to enhance the economic and industrial growth of our area.
Hildebrand is a 2018 graduate of the Institute for Organization Management, IOM, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. She has also served on the board of directors for the Arkansas Economic Developers and Chamber Executives (AEDCE), the professional association of economic developers in the state.
Brad Lacy, Conway Area Chamber of Commerce
As president and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber, Brad Lacy’s job is to help grow local businesses and attract new ones. Lacy and other local officials have been successful. The city has grown to become the sixth largest in the state with just under 68,000 residents, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Its population has increased by almost 25,000 since the year 2000 alone.
The Conway Chamber has more than 1,300 member businesses, and its partnership with the Conway Development Corporation resulted in an economic development program that’s been responsible for almost 2,000 new jobs since 2016. This partnership also launched Conway2025, a five-year strategic plan to guide future growth that has already seen the development of Rogers Plaza downtown, redevelopment plans for Cantrell Field and high-profile transportation initiatives.
Under Lacy’s leadership, the Conway chamber was named Chamber of the Year by the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives in 2013 and was runner-up for the national award in 2018.
He is a graduate of the Community Development Institute at UCA, the Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Institute for Organization Management program, and he is a Certified Chamber Executive through the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Allison Thompson, Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County
Allison Thompson was hired in 2019 to lead the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, Pine Bluff’s chief promotion agency. She previously directed economic development efforts in the Metroplex city of Cedar Hill, Texas.
The alliance, which opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1995, is dedicated to the growth and development of Jefferson County. It was formed to unify community and economic development efforts. The Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Port Authority fall under the auspices of the alliance.
Efforts include the traditional attraction, retention, expansion and workforce-development pillars of economic development, combined with the community building and business-support services of the chamber. More recent efforts underway include growing marketing efforts into the online and virtual world and expanding exposure on social media to reach a wider audience.
During her time in Cedar Hill, Thompson was responsible for attracting large companies to the city and helping expand local businesses. In Pine Bluff, she took over in time to see completion of the Quapaw Nation’s Saracen Casino Resort. It opened in October with plans to employ more than 1,100 local workers once a 300-room adjacent hotel with restaurants, a spa, a conference center and a museum and cultural center are completed this year.