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Divided we stand 

Can the whole be less than the sum of its parts? Arkansas is a small state, but it is geographically divided into regions that have their own distinct economic and cultural characteristics. An improving highway network still does not easily connect us, and getting to El Dorado or Jonesboro from another corner of the state is a serious trip. Maybe that’s not so important. We might be better off encouraging each region to do its own thing, forging connections across state lines where there are more natural cooperative possibilities. Last week the Arkansas Department of Economic Development (ADED) announced the formation of the Southwest Missouri/Northwest Arkansas Partnership, through which Benton County and two adjoining Missouri counties will work together to promote their regional economy. It will be a deep and multi-layered merger, involving strategic planning that includes everything from transportation and retiree relocation to education and health care. It makes sense and it is overdue. The U.S. Census already lumps Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri together as a Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is a concrete acknowledgement of an easily observed fact. People commute across the border every day, living in one state and working in another. A citizen of Northwest Arkansas has more in common with a citizen of Southwest Missouri than with a citizen in any other part of Arkansas. Amazingly, this partnership is the first of its kind in Arkansas to cross a state line. That should change, considering we share borders with six states and could easily combine strengths and resources to our mutual benefit. Our only other comparable interstate effort is Crittenden County’s membership in the Memphis Regional Economic Development Council, but that is a far less formal arrangement, according to ADED spokesperson Jan Pertain. There is little coordination on development strategies involving tourism, infrastructure, the environment and quality-of-life considerations. In fact, it has always bothered me that in Memphis, whether at Graceland or the airport, there are plenty of tourism promotions for Mississippi and never any for Arkansas. When I had the chance to ask economic development officials there about that, they said Mississippi devotes more attention and resources toward its connection with Memphis than Arkansas does. As a result, Mississippi has gained a lot. The expansion of Memphis has mostly gone south instead of west, even though it is by far the closest major city and transportation hub to a substantial portion of eastern Arkansas. Furthermore, Memphis has been working with northern Mississippi to position itself as a “manufacturing corridor.” Which brings me to another point. The competition among states for corporate headquarters and industrial sites is inefficient and wasteful. Bidding wars drive up costs of incentives and subsidies so that states end up giving away more than they stand to get. The result is even more ridiculous when eastern Arkansas, northern Mississippi and western Tennessee compete, because the benefits accrue to all three states no matter where a facility lands. By working together, they could develop an improvement plan (streamlining transportation, for instance), lower the costs of competition and promote the area as a tri-state region. Finally, interstate partnerships help address issues that require regional solutions by aligning interests instead of dividing them. Right now Oklahoma is suing Arkansas because poultry processing waste on our side is being dumped into rivers that cross over to their side. And Arkansas is complaining because air pollution originating in Memphis is affecting ozone levels on our side of the river. If we had economic development agreements with eastern Oklahoma and Memphis, everyone would have a stake in quickly fixing those problems instead of fighting about them. Many states long ago figured this out. They work closely with their neighbors on a regional basis because proximity and common characteristics have practical value when it comes to streamlining and growing an economy. In Central Arkansas, that means nurturing the five-county Metroplan initiative, which is coordinating planning and development. But in places like Fort Smith and Texarkana, it means encouraging the same kinds of efforts across state lines. All of us love Arkansas and are united by our state pride. But when it comes to economic development, we need to let each region go its own way, even if that means they do more business across our borders than within them.
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