FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.– A steering committee appointed by Mayor Lioneld Jordan wants to help the city recover economically from the covid-19 pandemic and set a path for moving forward.
The committee of about 25 business owners, real estate professionals, financiers, urban planners, educators, and health and environmental experts met for the first time Monday online via Zoom. The goal is to develop a 5-year economic recovery plan to be presented to the City Council in the fall.
The city has adopted economic development plans before, such as the Fayetteville Forward and Fayetteville First plans, within the past decade. The new Economic Recovery and Vitality Plan will function in much the same way, but with the slant of covid-19’s impact on locally owned businesses and the workforce.
Jordan said he wanted to hear bold recommendations because the pandemic presented issues the city had never seen. He emphasized ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion of all kinds of people as a driver for the initiative.
“Businesses and organizations sacrificed their livelihoods to protect the health of this community,” Jordan said. “That’s something this city’s never going to forget, and I’m not going to forget.”
The plan will address five areas: workforce development and training; economic equity and inclusion for populations facing barriers to economic mobility; support, growth and retention for small businesses; and growth-oriented economic development with an emphasis on workforce and attainable housing; as well as attracting and creating new jobs in the city to recover from the pandemic.
The city staff is already analyzing sales during the pandemic, Economic Vitality Director Devin Howland said. The city also has contracts with the Chamber of Commerce and Startup Junkie for economic development, and has been working with the two entities on strategies throughout the pandemic, he said.
Restaurants, hospitality and retail businesses suffered the most. Sales in city restaurants, for instance, dropped from more than $167 million in 2019 to just more than $135 million last year, falling by nearly $32 million, or 19%.
Online shopping, however, skyrocketed. Online sales in 2019 were just more than $71 million, jumping to more than $125 million last year. That’s a $54 million, or 76%, increase.
Patent attorney Meredith Lowry and Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, will co-chair the committee. The goal is to compile input from committee members, residents and business owners outside the committee over the next several months, they said. Resources will be posted to the city’s website.
Panel members agreed early on that the university supplies the city’s biggest economic asset. The city also needs to be economically sustainable in a number of ways, including environmentally. Opportunities for working-class people and small businesses need to be retained and expanded, they said.
Jeannette Balleza Collins, director of entrepreneurial development with the Northwest Arkansas Council, said economic equity and inclusion should serve as the foundation for all other areas of the plan.
“That’s the systemic part of it,” she said.
Bo Counts, owner of Pinpoint pinball bar, said the city’s economic plan needs to incorporate interconnectivity with other regional cities. What works in other cities may not work in Fayetteville, and vice versa, he said.
“We’re still a very, very small town that is trying to be a very, very large one,” Counts said. “With that comes some ups and downs.”
Howland said future meetings will dive into what the city should do with money for economic development that it will receive under the American Rescue Plan, among other issues.
“We don’t have a consultant. This is going to be us. This is going to be Startup Junkie. This is going to be the chamber. We’re going to do this, and we can do this,” he said. “From what we heard today, this is going to be better than we ever envisioned.”