Fraternizing: Sen. Mark Pryor (center) meets with members of the North Central Arkansas Regional Economic Development Aug. 11 at the Baxter County Fairgrounds in Mountain Home. NCARED is comprised of members from seven counties including Fulton and Izard counties. Pryor also met with leaders in several other counties in northeast Arkansas to tout the highway bill he helped to pass in Congress two weeks ago. Photo/Jared
An organization whose purpose is to promote economic growth in north-central Arkansas may have acquired a new ally in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Mark Pryor was the guest speaker at the North Central Arkansas Regional Economic Development summit Aug. 11 in Mountain Home.
Pryor said building a four-lane interstate highway through the northern tier of the state -- a longtime goal for NCARED -- is critical for the economic development of the region and the state.
"This group (NCARED) has been a tremendous advocate for its members," Pryor said. "The Highway 62/412 four-lane project is a part of the economic well being of the state."
Baxter, Fulton, Izard, Marion, Searcy, Stone and Van Buren counties are a part of NCARED.
Pryor said Arkansas will receive $2.3 billion from the federal government over the next five years for highway construction projects. He said that's a 30-percent increase for Arkansas over the last highway bill passed in Congress.
A portion of that money will be spent on improving a stretch of Highway 62/412 between Mountain Home and Ash Flat.
In addition, Pryor said the Ozark Airport located in Baxter County will receive $2.1 million to install runway lights and buy equipment to upgrade the rural airport.
"Constructing a regional airport is vital to this area," he said.
Pryor said the highway bill passed by Congress didn't address all of Arkansas' highway needs but residents should be encouraged.
"Anytime you pass major legislation, something or someone is going to get left out," Pryor said. "For every dollar Arkansans pay in taxes we're getting $1.04 back from the federal government. That's pretty good."
The war in Iraq and the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice have slowed legislation in Congress that could help improve the state's economy, Pryor said.
Another speaker at the event, Larry Walther, director of the Arkansas Department of Economic Development and Education, said industrial jobs in the state are in decline.
He said Arkansas needs to have better educated populace if it expects to grow economically in the future.
"We have to focus on educating our workforce for jobs that will be evolving in the future," Walther said.
Jerry Estes, chairman of NCARED and a Salem native, said he was grateful Pryor took time out of his schedule to speak to the group.
"Our goal is to promote economic development without changing the lifestyle in our part of the state," Estes said. "We appreciate the senator and the things he's trying to do for us."
Estes said Fulton County's participation in NCARED has been productive. He said several businesses and industries have shown some interest in the county.
"I met with a man who wants to take a look at our industrial park in Salem, maybe sometime this week," Estes said.
Ken Ballman, a Horseshoe Bend native and member of the NCARED board of directors, said he is working for economic development in Horseshoe Bend.
"Right now we don't have a piece of ground to call an industrial park," Ballman said. "Finding land for one is a top priority."
Currently, Horseshoe Bend has an industrial park on Highway 289 inside the city limits.
"It's like a swamp," Ballman said. "It would cost far more than we are willing to spend to bring that place into compliance."
After an industrial park is established, Ballman said the city will attempt to attract industry and business by offering an incentive package.
Incentives could include tax relief, free land for a building site and help with the construction of buildings, he said.
"But we would want to be sure that we were getting our investment back," Ballman said. "I mean, I want them to stick around long enough to affect our local economy in a positive way."
No industry or business has contacted Horseshoe Bend recently about relocating, Ballman said.
But one business that's already in operation in Horseshoe Bend, Gray's Saddlery, has long-term possibilities, he said.
John Gray, owner and operator of Gray's Saddlery, has designed a specialty horse saddle for people with disabilities, Ballman said.
"We've approached him (Gray) several times to see what we could do to make his businesses expand," Ballman said.
"I would like to see Horseshoe Bend become the saddle making capital of Arkansas."
Ballman, who is also a member of the Izard County Quorum Court, said another idea under consideration is finding a small factory to set up shop near the Horseshoe Bend Airport.
"We think a small parts factory located on the airport property would go over really well," Ballman said. "It might not employ a great number of people but it would provide jobs and taxes and the parts could be flown right out of there."