Two Way: AEDC Exec. Director Talks Economy, Education, and Arkansas Rice in China, Cuba

Aug 9, 2017

Despite slow growth in the beginning of 2017, the economy is expected to be stronger for states in the Mid-West and Plains, which includes Arkansas and Missouri.  That's according to a recent Creighton University economy report

Mike Preston, Executive Director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission
Credit Arkansas Economic Development Commission

One person in Arkansas has been paying close attention to the state's economy—the Executive Director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Mike Preston. 

He has worked closely with Governor Asa Hutchinson bringing jobs to Arkansas while addressing a skills gap for jobs in the state.  Preston visited the KASU Newsroom while touring Northeast Arkansas to talk about the state's economy and plans for the future, including a potential trade deal with China. 

The last time Preston was in the area was for the announcement of Shandong Ruyi of the Shandong Province in China buying the old Sanyo factory in Forrest City.  The company is expected to bring 800 jobs to the Delta city, where workers will be turning Arkansas cotton into yarn, according to a press release.

"It certainly is a big win for Forrest City," Preston said, "but really all of Eastern Arkansas and the entire Delta."

Even though the news of Shandong Ruyi conducting operations out of Forrest City is what he calls a "shot-in-the-arm", he does note that the Delta area of the state is struggling the most economically.

"You look at South Arkansas and they are trailing behind other parts of the state," Preston said, "but you're starting to see a re-emergence of the timber industry in Arkansas."  He said the housing market nationwide is on the rise, which will also help improve the area.

Another method the state is using to help grow the economy in Arkansas is through education.  Governor Hutchinson has been working to boost enrollment in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and technical colleges in the state.  

Preston said the commission has also been working to help further the Governor's education mission through the Blue Ribbon Commission.  In March 2017, Hutchinson appointed Preston and Axicom CEO Charles Morgan to lead the commission to look for ways to boost Arkansas’ computer science and data analytics industry.

The commission’s membership is comprised of leaders in business and higher education including J.B Hunt CEO John Roberts, Walmart Executive Vice President Clay Johnson, Arkansas State University System President Dr. Charles Welch, University of Arkansas System President Dr. Donald Bobbitt, and state Department of Higher Education Director Dr. Maria Markham.

Talk Business and Politics reports the commission is expected to produce a report by Fall 2017 addressing three key issues:  business challenges in computing and data analytics; potential application niche areas for Arkansas to build excellence and depth in computing and data analytics; and skill needs and challenges of Arkansas’ talent pipeline. 

Preston told KASU News that the commission is expected to have the report ready by the end of the summer.  He said it will help higher education institutions develop a curriculum that will address the three issues.  “We’re working on that [report] very hard,” Preston said, “and, as we speak, we’ve had a couple of in-person, follow-up, and individual meetings with companies to push this initiative through.”

Even though the Governor and Preston are looking at boosting the state’s tech sector, they have always kept their eyes on agriculture—especially rice.  Governor Asa Hutchinson is working on a trading partnership with China to export Arkansas rice. 

Toward the later part of July 2017, the Republican Governor made the announcement in his weekly radio column.  It follows an agreement that U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed allowing farmers across the nation to sell rice to China.

Hutchinson said in his column that China’s 1.4 billion population consumes about 225 pounds of rice per person per year.  Preston called it a “tremendous opportunity” for Arkansas farmers.

“What’s interesting about this,” Preston said, “despite [Arkansas] being the number one rice producing state and producing half of all the rice in the United States, China could consume our entire crop in two week’s time.”

Preston said the rice would be marketed as “high-end rice” and hopes for the state to begin selling as soon as 2018.

Meanwhile, Preston said he is still hopeful for one day opening a trading partnership with Cuba.  Legislation spearheaded by Representative Rick Crawford and Senator John Boozman to trade commodities such as rice and poultry with the nation stalled after President Trump announced that he was reversing Obama-era policies involving Cuba. 

Preston said that the President made a good move to keep the American embassy open there, but it will take a balancing act of Congress to handle the "delicate" situation.

“Having traveled there and visited the country, you see there is a need,” said Preston.  “People are hungry.  There’s people on the streets who are starving.  Obviously, this is the impact of a dictatorship that’s been there for many years, and we’d certainly love to see change there.  But, we’ve got to realize that there is a humanitarian issue here, as well.”