Region envy 

On an airplane out of town last week, I was jolted from a fitful redeye slumber by a short article in the Democrat-Gazette business section. It recounted a talk in Rogers by Jeff Collins, director of the Sam M. Walton College of Business Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas. He told a group of business people that Northwest Arkansas was being used as a “cash cow” by the rest of the state.

From the article: “The state depends on us. The revenue is generated here, and they spend it. They need us, but they don’t like us,” he said. Jealousy and competition are two reasons many politicians in the state have negative reactions to Northwest Arkansas. …

“One of our biggest challenges [to road building and other infrastructure improvements] is getting Little Rock out of our way,” Collins said.

This little article jerked my chain and I heard from others about it, too. Collins’ remarks seemed to reflect precisely the sort of regionalism he purported to decry.

Also, though I was sure Collins knew better, he came off sounding like many of the Northwest Arkansas boosters who pop off on the Arkansas Blog. Which is to say, uninformed. There’s no denying the rapid growth in Northwest Arkansas and thank goodness for it. But, for the time being, more people live in Central Arkansas. They earn higher per capita incomes. And the region contributes more to the state tax base than Collins’ home turf. It has ever been thus.

I called Collins about the article. It was clear that his remarks weren’t taken out of context, though he confessed that he hadn’t known a reporter was present. He said he’d meant his remarks as more of a pep talk for the home team and emphasized that one of his biggest complaints about the region is the failure of its legislative delegation to work as an effective team. Several Northwest Arkansas legislators are social-issue specialists, more worried about gay marriage than economic development.

Collins readily acknowledges that Central Arkansas is an economic engine, too. He said he was mostly trying to make the larger point that Arkansas is a state overburdened with people qualified for only low-skill jobs and has an education system often influenced more by local politics than delivering the best education for the money. How else to explain a state with more colleges and universities than richer, bigger Florida?

Here’s the real bone he has to pick. Collins believes research and development are the key to better jobs. R&D is more effective if it is more concentrated, he says. Bigger is better, in short. Arkansas, Collins figures, can’t afford more than two major research universities — UAMS and the University of Arkansas. But regularly, other campuses siphon off research money through legislative log-rolling, a guarantee, he says, of “persistent mediocrity.”

I wouldn’t argue with much of what Collins said. Cooperation is better than petty jealousy and self-interest. We have too many colleges. “A booming statewide economy, no matter where growth is occurring, is a good thing for all Arkansans.”

But Collins might do well to remember that one man’s cooperation — if it means agreeing that virtually all research dollars should go to UA-Fayetteville and not, say, UALR — might look an awful lot like regionalism to the fellow who doesn’t get the dough.


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