An organization dedicated to bringing new jobs to Fulton County and surrounding counties has given itself a job review, and it is not pleased with its performance.
For decades, individual cities and counties in the Ozarks have readied sites for new industry and offered incentives to try to bring new jobs to the area, but progress has been slow.
In 2003, a new regional organization named North Central Arkansas Regional Economic Development, NCARED for short, was formed to get area counties to work together to recruit new industries.
During it's existence, NCARED has established a website, held regular meetings and seminars and conducted a major study to identify the types of businesses and industries best suited for the region.
But, despite the effort, some area leaders will tell you NCARED has not developed as the powerful economic development engine, they hoped for.
"Our job is to bring new business to the area and more and better jobs," Dr. Pat Bailey recently told the Salem Chamber of Commerce. "We are making some major changes. This group is going to run fast and hard. Do you want to come with us?"
That is bold talk from an organization many feel has run out of steam in recent years.
The NCARED Board of Directors met in Salem on Oct. 20, joining the Salem Chamber for lunch and staying on to discuss NCARED's future.
"Strategically, where should we go? How do we get there?"
Those were the questions Bailey, NCARED's new president, asked seven board members on hand for the meeting.
Bailey, a top official at Arkansas State University Mountain Home, is determined to get NCARED moving again.
One of her first initiatives is to look at the commitment of the eight counties which belong to the organization: Baxter, Fulton, Izard, Sharp, Stone, Marion, Searcy, and Van Buren. Some county representatives have not been active, as far as attending meetings and offering ideas and support.
Bailey has suggested NCARED might be more successful by reducing the number of counties in the organization.
Fulton County NCARED member, Jerry Estes, supports that idea.
"We need to get them (disinterested counties) on board or move on without them," said Estes. "If they are not going to participate...maybe there is another fit for them somewhere else."
Plans were made to contact county judges and other leaders in inactive counties to see whether they want to remain in the organization.
Another idea on the table is a name change. Bailey and other directors see "North Central Arkansas Regional Economic Development" as a mouthful and don't believe that "NCARED" really describes what the organization does.
Possible new names would emphasize its economic development mission. One suggestion: Rural Economic Devel- opment or RED.
"We need to make NCARED the exclusive, go to organization for recruiting companies, locating development sites and coordinating other economic development efforts," said Ed Toscano, a director from Baxter County.
Administrator Eddie Ma- jeste believes NCARED's new e-mail newsletter is helping county judges and chambers of commerce realize the organization is reorganizing and is serious about creating jobs in our region.
Board members recently sent out requests for membership dues to be paid and are hopeful the good response is a sign many leaders have not given up on a regional development approach.
Bailey believes that NCARED must become more visible if it is to be successful. She would like to see it "toot its horn" more, instead of working quietly behind the scenes.
Renee Doty from the Arkansas Economic Develop- ment Commission agreed.
"Newport has been very progressive and good at thinking out of the box," Doty told the board. "It is a small community but it hired an economic development director and it celebrates new businesses that come in, no matter how small."
Estes told the board an NCARED success story many board members had not heard. The organization's website helped a company, interested in moving, identify Fulton County as a potential site for its operation.
From the website contact, Fulton County was able to recruit the company and refurbish a former shirt factory building for the operation, which plans to move to Salem in January.
"And they found this building through our website?" a board member asked.
"Through this website," Estes replied.
"That's fantastic, excellent," another board member chimed in.
During the meeting, NCARED directors decided to continue working on a strategic plan for change to revitalize the organization. Directors will hold a retreat on Nov. 18, for intensive talks on what changes are needed to make NCARED more successful.
"I think that, geographically, we have expanded too far," said Ken Ballman, an Izard County resident who has been on the NCARED board since its inception seven years ago. "For example, it's hard for someone in Van Buren County to get too involved because it takes them two hours just to come to Salem or Horseshoe Bend for a meeting."
Ballman believes NCARED has laid the groundwork to create jobs but he supports the idea of shaking the organization up.
"Take what we have done and get together a group of enthused people and this will be a successful organization which will help the region's economy," Ballman said.
In March of next year, the NACRED board plans to call a Summit Meeting of government, Chamber of Commerce, and community leaders in the north central Arkansas area.
At that time, the board may unveil a new name, a new line up of counties committed to working together to create jobs, and a new plan to get the job done.
"All we need are people who are committed to the process," said Bailey, optimistically looking to the future.