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Arkansas governor talks region's future with business, government leaders

Heartland Forward
Heartland Forward, a think tank based in Bentonville, says it is working to change the narrative about the middle of the country.

Business leaders and policy makers from around the country joined Gov. Asa Hutchinson at the Heartland Summit in Bentonville on Thursday to discuss ways to improve the local economies of the region.

In addition to Hutchinson, guest speakers at the event included JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, Walmart heir Steuart Walton and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

According to Heartland Forward, a Bentonville-based think tank and the summit's sponsor, the purpose of the meeting is to change the narrative about the middle of the country. Hutchinson said there are stigmas around the region's workforce that can make it difficult to attract tech companies.

“Whenever you look at software engineers, people think of Silicon Valley and they think of the east coast. We want them to think of the heartland of America, because we’re producing computer scientists, we’re creating software engineers, and they’re needed to create the future in technology,” Hutchinson told KUAR in an interview after the event.

In 2015, Hutchinson passed legislation to require public high schools to offer computer science education. The governor credits the law for putting the state in position for the tech jobs that he says will be in demand in the future. When the initiative began there were about 1,100 students enrolled in computer science courses, and in 2020 that number grew to about 10,400, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

In addition to improving the workforce, Hutchinson said the region will need to have a better quality of life to regain lost population.

“Mechanization of agriculture and other technologies have reduced the need for a vast population in terms of agriculture, so we have to convert these areas into opportunities in manufacturing and technology. We’ve got to increase the attractiveness in terms of our quality of life,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said he still sees a future for rural parts of the country to be manufacturing hubs. He pointed to the recent investments by steel companies to open and expand manufacturing facilities in northeast Arkansas.

Ronak Patel was a reporter for KUAR News focusing on state and local government.