Saturday, January 31, 2015

TOP STORY >> Chamber hears it’s a new dawn

Leader publisher

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce banquet Thursday night at the community center was perhaps the most upbeat celebration of the city in at least a quarter of a century.

The chamber’s outgoing and incoming presidents, as well as the president of the state chamber of commerce, were bullish on progress in Jacksonville and Arkansas.

They noted, among many signs of progress, the creation of a new Jacksonville School District, $200 million in repairs and widening of Hwy. 67/167 between Redmond Road and Cabot and the upcoming vote on whether to allow liquor sales in grocery stores and restaurants after a successful petition drive to put the issue on the ballot.

Daniel Gray, the outgoing chamber president and now president of the Jacksonville School Board, told a soldout dinner crowd that it takes a concerted effort for the chamber to achieve goals like the new school district and alcohol petition drive.

“It took a lot of hard work and perseverance,” Gray noted. As for getting the new school district off the ground, “The hard work is before us.”

Voters last September overwhelmingly approved separating from the Pulaski County Special School District. The new board has named former PCSSD Superintendent Bobby Lester as interim superintendent. Jacksonville will take control of its schools in the 2016-17 school year.

The wet-dry petition drive turned in 5,000 signatures this week and is awaiting certification on Monday. A vote will he held in early spring, Gray said.

Roger Sundermeier, the new president, announced the formation of a small-business initiative to support local businesses. He said Jacksonville needs unity and a good mix of retail chains, restaurants and locally owned businesses.

“What Jacksonville deserves is a town that is better than we remember,” Sundermeier said. “How do we get there? I think one key component is unity. I don’t think it’s a secret there has not always been a level of cohesiveness and unity among the main leadership groups in Jacksonville. Steps have been, and will continue to be, taken to unify these groups, and my goal is to work with each of them to eradicate those perceived barriers in 2015.

“In 2015, we will come together for the betterment and growth of Jacksonville. Even if something may not be the chamber’s primary function, if it can help make our community stronger, we will be there to help as needed.

“A perfect example of this effort is our recent partnership with the city to create a small business association. This was brought to us as an opportunity to partner together and reinforce our commitment to work together. You will be hearing more about this association in the near future,” he said.

“We live in a new age of commerce. We live in a new economy. We do not have time to assign blame or responsibility. This year, my commitment to you is this: You will not hear the words, ‘Well, that’s not the chamber’s job’ or ‘the city should be doing this…’ coming from our lips,” he said.

Guest speaker Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas, said, “I’m optimistic on where we’re headed.”

He predicted economic growth for the state, but he cautioned that Arkansas must be more competitive.

“We’re not competitive with neighboring states,” Zook said.

He said state politicians, from the governor to legislators, campaigned for economic growth. He said Gov. Hutchinson called six industrial prospects on his first day in office. Zook said the governor should make such calls every day and entice prospects with economic incentives.

He said the Arkansas Department of Environ-mental Quality was anti-business and makes it difficult for industries to get permits. “It’s the longest process. It’s not necessary,” he said.

Zook also said the state must spend more on job training. He praised Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) for her workforce initiatives. But Wisconsin, which is not much bigger than Arkansas, spends $150 million on jobs training, while Arkansas spends one-tenth of that, he said.

“We’ve got to make sure kids understand there are many paths to jobs,” he said.