Heartland Forward report offers six strategies to boost Arkansas economy

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A task force focused on the state's post-pandemic economy wants to use Arkansas' recovery to rebrand the state and build on its strengths.

What's happening: Bentonville-based think tank Heartland Forward today published the Arkansas Economic Recovery Strategy (AERS).

  • The AERS was commissioned by the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force, a group appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year to guide how the state reopens following the pandemic.

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  • The primary audience is Arkansas policymakers, economic development officials and those in post-secondary education, but the authors hope policymakers in other heartland states will take note of the strategies.

Why it matters: The authors see now as the time to elevate Arkansas' economy by ensuring it's a desirable place to live and work.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic exposed some of the state's underlying issues that stunt growth, such as lack of internet connectivity and its poor showing in health scores.

The big picture: Heartland Forward distilled the state's economy into six main areas, with recommendations and detailed steps for achieving growth in each one. The six buckets are:

  1. Talent and workforce — develop a statewide, cohesive and aligned talent creation, attraction and retention strategy.

  2. Innovation and research — increase, and make permanent, funding for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

  3. Entrepreneurship and small businesses — explicitly incorporate entrepreneurship as a key strategy for growing and diversifying the state's economy.

  4. Health care — invest public funds in educating residents about chronic disease and mental health while also building a hub of medical and research centers.

  5. Supply chains and logistics — embrace a new type of blue-collar work found in transportation and logistics.

  6. High-speed internet — increase funding to achieve aspirational levels of internet connectivity for Arkansans and upgrade the broadband infrastructure.

Yes, but: Research shows key factors holding back economic growth here include the low labor force participation rate of women, at 69.6%, which is 44th in the nation.

  • Plus: Only 23.3% of Arkansans above the age of 25 hold a bachelor's degree, making us 48th in the U.S.

  • Only 8.3% hold a graduate degree, the lowest in the U.S.

  • Our obesity rate is 37.4%, the third-highest in the U.S.

The bottom line: Authors say Arkansas needs to do more to attract talent, beef up industries like tech and health care, and train the workforce for higher-paying jobs.

  • And internet connectivity is critical since it can help with training and improving health through telemedicine.

What to watch: Gov. Hutchinson is moving into his role as chair of the National Governors Association this week, so the Heartland Forward strategies could show up in other states' pandemic recovery plans.

  • Ross DeVol, president and CEO of Heartland Forward, said the organization will support and offer advice to the governor's office and policy leaders in implementation efforts, if needed.

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