On Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson officially named Mike Preston as the new executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the state agency charged with recruiting and retaining jobs. Preston comes from Enterprise Florida, that state’s economic development arm.
Preston appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, which will be broadcast Monday at 6:06 p.m. on KUAR.
Preston, 32, spent six years with Enterprise Florida and also worked for a State Representative and State Senator in the Florida Legislature.
"The state Senator is where I really started to cut my teeth in economic development. He represented a large, rural area in Florida – a lot of times people don’t think Florida and think rural – but we were in north central Florida, a very rural part of the state," Preston said.
The new jobs chief said his first priority when he starts on April 6 will be to have his ear to the ground.
"First and foremost, I’ve got to listen. I’ve got to understand what’s going on around the state, get my arms around the issues and challenges and make sure we’re doing the right things to overcome them. [And] meeting with business leadership," he said.
With his rural background, Preston said he hopes to help revive rural Arkansas communities that are struggling. He’ll begin with an assessment of strengths and weaknesses, which may mirror a study he helped push to advance rural Florida economic activity.
"What can we build upon in those regions of the state?" he said. "Each and every one of them has something to offer."
Enterprise Florida is a public-private partnership where business entities and the state share financial resources to aid with job recruiting and marketing. Preston said Arkansas – in order to compete with other states – may also advance its public and private economic development efforts.
"We’ve got a great foundation, a great commission right now, but if we can move and kind of take that to the next level, propel it a little bit further along into that public-private partnership model – that’s where a lot of economic development organizations are going," he said. "In Florida recently we were able, through donations, to put together a $1 million campaign to work on telling the business story of Florida."
Since Preston’s announcement and interview, a raging controversy surrounding HB 1228, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, has heightened.
On Friday, Apple CEO Tim Cook and others called on Gov. Hutchinson to veto the bill claiming it will result in discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Hutchinson said on Saturday, "As I previously stated, I will sign this bill as amended. This bill is designed to protect the religious freedoms of all Arkansans. It’s no different than legislation that has passed in 20 other states, from Illinois to Connecticut. Arkansas is open for business, and we recognize and respect the diversity of our culture and economy."
Preston, who had not read the bill at the time of the TB&P interview, delivered a statement from his spokesman, Scott Hardin, on Saturday asking how he or the agency would respond to Cook and other business leader statements regarding the measure.
"AEDC continues to monitor this bill as it may be amended and changed through the legislative process. We will continue to aggressively promote the many reasons to locate or expand operations in Arkansas," said Scott Hardin, AEDC spokesman. You can watch Preston’s full interview below.