“Strength in numbers” was the core concept that led to the formation of the Fort Smith Regional Alliance (FSRA). Companies and communities involved in the early stages recognized that having a formal alliance of towns in Eastern Oklahoma and Western Arkansas was necessary to make the region competitive on the national and international levels. Now in its tenth year, FSRA has helped shape the way cities recruit business and helped promote progress across state lines. Its efforts continue today as leaders look for new ways to drive economic development and to improve quality of place for the citizens who live and work in the region.
Establishing the Alliance took time and required great vision. Rob Ratley, who recently retired as OG&E Arkansas Community Affairs Manager, served as Founding Chairman of FSRA. At the time, he also headed the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce’s economic development division. Ratley worked closely with then Chamber President Paul Harvel to bring together leaders from neighboring communities.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to the late Maria Haley, who led a statewide initiative on formation of regional alliances across the state of Arkansas while at the helm of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission,” said Ratley. “This came at a time when the various communities of the Fort Smith region realized the value of collaboration to make us more competitive in the economic development arena.”
To give communities both large and small equal say, FSRA gave all member cities two votes. This decision helped ensure smaller towns would have a voice in regional matters and not be overshadowed by the larger cities.
Once established,FSRA began focusing on how to recruit targeted industry to the region. Little Rock-based firm Boyette Strategic Advisors was contracted to help with the task. The team conducted stakeholder interviews, facilitated discussion meetings, and launched an online survey for community input.
In 2011, FSRA unveiled its five-year plan. Data collected from the assessment helped FSRA expand its marketing efforts. Foundational to the plan was fostering relationships with other business-minded groups, school districts and institutions of higher education, to address workforce development. Since its inception, FSRA has collaborated with districts throughout the region, as well as the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, Arkansas Tech University-Ozark, Carl Albert State College, and the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, to promote programs that address critical skills shortages and train students and workers to meet those demands.
The organization has also worked closely with chambers of commerce, state agencies, legislators, and other essential partners to attract investors and assist in expansion efforts for existing businesses. In 2012, FSRA played an important role in bringing the edamame plant to Mulberry. “I verbally asked the FSRA Chairman at that time to help with making contacts at the Governor’s office and the Arkansas Finance Authority to secure some additional funding for the prospective company to build their plant in Mulberry,” shared Mayor Gary Baxter. “Using the influence of regional members together was an important part of getting the necessary additional funds to convince the company to locate in Mulberry.” American Vegetable Soybean and Edamame, Inc. invested $5.8 million in constructing the facility. Today, AVS employs approximately 150 workers during peak harvest and around 50 workers in the off-season.
The Alliance also partnered with local leaders to help bring the CitiTrends Distribution Center to Roland in 2011. CitiTrends, Inc. invested $15 million in constructing the 425,000 square-foot facility. FSRA has worked behind the scenes on many other projects throughout the participating eight counties. The group has been a strong advocate and promoter of the growth at Chaffee Crossing, completion of I-49, and for the recruitment of new industry in Eastern Oklahoma and Western Arkansas.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, FSRA held quarterly meetings that welcomed representatives from participating cities and entities. State and local lawmakers, as well as heads of transportation, economic, and education groups also join to discuss current issues affecting the region. Participating cities, chambers of commerce, institutions, and other groups alternate hosting, giving each community an opportunity to welcome participants and highlight all they offer to the region.
“The Alliance has worked well and has given every community an equal voice,” noted Executive Committee member, Fred Williams “Spreading the meetings around the region has been good and has helped us see that there are positive things happening in every community out there. We have been able to all celebrate successes together and call on each other for help with economic development. That has made all the difference in the world.”
Plans for coming decade
The new decade has brought a renewed focus for the Alliance. FSRA’s executive committee convened in early January to outline its goals and to plan for its first quarter meeting. Committees will tackle issues such as rural transportation and housing, as well as how to increase access to internet for all communities. “Our area has made great progress in terms of infrastructure in our larger cities and we want our rural towns to have these same advantages,” shared current FSRA Chairman Drake Smith. “We want to identify ways to help equip our regional partners with the tools they need to make our region even more competitive.”
The Alliance is also capitalizing on its anniversary to rebrand itself. The organization recently unveiled a new logo that represents all eight participating counties. “We felt it was time for a fresh new image for FSRA and the new logo helps us accomplish that,” said Smith. The organization is also overhauling its existing website. The updated site will include videos highlighting specific industries, attractions, and the overall strengths of the region. FSRA’s website will continue to provide site selection links, relevant regional news, and important community data. New video footage will also be promoted on FSRA’s social media.
Planning for a ten-year anniversary celebration was temporarily halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the committee is hopeful that it will be able to hold an event at some point this year. “We are excited to bring together representatives from all eight counties, including city and county officials, industry and agency leaders, state lawmakers, and other FSRA supporters to mark this milestone,” said Smith. “The event will serve as both a celebration of our past successes and collaborations, and will provide an opportunity to look forward and ask, ‘what’s next?’ for our area.”
FSRA leaders are also excited about several new investments and ongoing workforce development projects. The establishment of the Fort Smith Public Schools’ Peak Innovation Center is predicted to play a major role in developing talent for region. It was cited as a contributing factor in Hytrol’s decision to build in Fort Smith and is expected to impact other industries. According to the district, the Center “will forever change the educational and economic landscape of the River Valley region…It is a place where career and college-bound students develop real-world skills and earn industry-specific certifications to create a future workforce that will drive success across the industry and beyond.”
Such partnerships are evidence of the regional mindset that FSRA has worked to reinforce over the past decade. Members are optimistic about building upon past successes and forging new relationships to help the area stay commercially competitive at all levels. “Strong partners are the keys that open all doors,” noted Poteau Chamber of Commerce CEO Karen Wages. “The Fort Smith Regional Alliance’s ten years of success reflects today’s partners for tomorrow’s future development in the River Valley Region.”
About the Fort Smith Regional Alliance (FSRA)
The Fort Smith Regional Alliance (FSRA) is a collaborative organization of Arkansas and Oklahoma communities supporting one another in economic development. Comprised of cities and towns within a 50-mile radius of Fort Smith, FSRA has members in eight counties. FSRA exists to help the region compete for enterprise at the national and international levels. Participants benefit from having ties to legislators, as well as the opportunity to interact with industry leaders. Working as a cohesive body also allows members to plan for growth from a broader, regional perspective and strengthens promotional efforts of new initiatives or industries for the entire area. Learn more about FSRA at www.FortSmithRegionalAlliance.com.