Mayors in the Fort Smith region hope to promote not only their individual cities but their region as a whole for its uniqueness.
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, Van Buren Mayor Joe Hurst, Alma Mayor Jerry Martin and Greenwood Mayor Doug Kinslow in a panel at the second annual Invest Fort Smith event Thursday night said they intend to collectively promote their cities in the same way city officials in northwest and central Arkansas have done. But to do it successfully, the mayors said, they need to play on the strengths of the towns — specifically their historical significance, their proximity to the Arkansas river and their differences as municipalities.
"We have to work together. If we do, and we continue to do that, and we continue with that mindset, we're going to be unstoppable," Martin said.
Western Arkansas in recent years has often been overshadowed by other parts of the state that have seen more growth, specifically northwest Arkansas. Kinslow said this is not necessarily because there aren't job opportunities in the region, but because the region's public perception, lack of promotion and lack of large employers like those in northwest Arkansas.
McGill in the panel said he would like to see an effort to convince Walmart and Tyson, which are based out of northwest Arkansas, to use the Arkansas River for transportation of goods. He estimated this mode of transportation would cut down their transportation costs 20% to 30%.
He also said the Arkansas River is "an amazing asset" for Fort Smith. Hurst agreed with him in regard to its impact on his town.
"There's lots of land to develop," McGill said of the riverfront.
Kinslow said all four cities must "compete with people" — specifically young people — to give them reasons to stay in the region. He listed Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine as one measure that will keep people here.
But even with this progress, Kinslow still said there's work to be done.
"We've got a big old factory that's right in the heart of town," CKinslow said said, which he said is owned by a man in California and is "kind of a blight" to the city. 64.6 Downtown Director Talicia Richardson during an earlier panel gave a similar example of property owners in downtown Fort Smith who do not lease out or properly maintain their buildings.
On the flip side, there has been interest in the region from outside sources, McGill said. He said people from New York and North Carolina recently met with him to discuss the future of historic buildings in downtown Fort Smith.
Hurst added that promoting western Arkansas often goes beyond the towns themselves and looks to convey an image to the outside world. He said drawing attention from outside the region "has to begin with a mindset."
"(Regionalism) has really been a big change for my perspective," Hurst said. "When it comes to our economy, when it comes to attracting jobs, it's a regional thing. When you say, 'northwest Arkansas,' you don't necessarily say, 'Bentonville,' or 'Fayetteville,' or 'Springdale.'"
McGill said the mindset of regionalism applies to how the four cities add amenities as well. He said placing a fishery in the region from the water in Lake Fort Smith would be a measure that would benefit everyone.
At the same time, Martin said it's important for each city to be proud of what makes it unique.
"It starts with communicating and embracing our diversity," he said. "As we do that, we're going to connect, and as we connect, we're going to celebrate each other's victories, and as we do that, we're going to grow together as a region. This is what other regions of the state have figured out a long time ago, and we now have the leadership in our region that not only understands that but embraces that."