Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he has a list of companies in Japan and China that he plans to visit in the coming days during his Far East trade mission in hopes those countries will consider future capital ventures and investments in Arkansas.
“It is important for the governor of Arkansas to market the state, and to bring opportunity,” Hutchinson said at the annual meeting of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas held at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock. “I will be able to knock on their door.”
Hutchinson and Arkansas Economic Development Commission Director Mike Preston will leave Sunday to travel to Japan and China on the business recruitment trip that will last through Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving. The Arkansas delegation will spend three days in Japan and the remaining five days in China, the governor said.
During the visit, Hutchinson said he will meet with a number of the 18 Japanese companies that invest millions of dollars in the Arkansas economy and employ more than 5,000 workers across the state. Afterwards, Hutchinson plans to visit with Chinese government and economic development officials on his Far East trade mission, although that country does not have any companies with major operations on Arkansas soil.
“My hope over the long term is that we have multiple companies (come to Arkansas), but I don’t expect to return and say ‘here you go,’” Hutchinson told reporters after his speech. “I would love to see a number of Chinese companies invest in Arkansas, but that is simply not acquiring one but building a plan and creating more jobs that are here and investing in this state.
“As we see manufacturing return to the United States, Arkansas is in a perfect position to capitalize on that,” he said.
Hutchinson told reporters that he planned to invite the Chinese agricultural minister to Arkansas to see firsthand the state’s biosecurity efforts, such as those used by Tyson Foods.
Hutchinson also told the large chamber gathering that he plans to put the weight of his office behind a controversial plan to merge Crowley’s Ridge Technical Institute and East Arkansas Community College in Forrest City. Some Crowley Ridge officials have publicly called the merger plan a “hostile takeover,” according to local news articles.
However, Hutchinson said that he supports the proposal plan to consolidate the two higher education institutions into one entity to improve operating efficiencies and enhance the educational opportunities for students in Eastern Arkansas.
“Both are two fine institutions in the same city in Forrest City, but I believe that they can do a better job if they merge and combine into one entity,” the governor said. “It will strengthen the programs that are offered to the students, and it is about the students.”
Hutchinson emphasized merging the two programs into a community college model will increase the course offerings, the number of two-year technical education degrees, and give all students at both East Arkansas institutions a chance to access the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery Program.
“The (Crowley Ridge) technical school does not have the availability of our lottery scholarships, (but) they will have that with our two-year colleges,” he said.
After his brief speech to the chamber gathering, Hutchinson said the boards of the two East Arkansas technical colleges will have to vote to ask the state Board of Higher Education to support a merger plan. “That’s a sensitive issue in the communities, but I have talk to chairman of the board and I think there is a lot of sensitivity and … resistance, so let’s just take it a step at a time and I think as time will go they will realize the benefit of it to the students.”
Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis reiterated to reporters that the merger proposal is to enhance opportunities for students and improve the operating efficiencies of the two Eastern Arkansas schools.
After Hutchinson’s remarks at the annual business gathering, a number of Arkansas lawmakers received recognition from State Chamber officials for supporting the trade organization’s legislative agenda during the 90th General Assembly.
“We had the most business-friendly legislative session, I think, in Arkansas history,” said Randy Zook, president and CEO of the state’s largest business lobbying group. Eric Chester, a leading voice on employee engagement and workplace culture and author of five books on those subjects, was the keynote speaker at this year’s event.