Guest Column: August 2021
THE NEWPORT INITIATIVE
One year in, and counting
Newport Economic Development Commission
JUST SHY OF a year ago, G.B. Cazes of The Emory Group wrote compellingly in this space about a “crisis of regional imbalance” in this country’s tech and innovation landscape. “Much of Middle America is being overlooked,” Cazes wrote, “as big tech companies cluster on the coasts (e.g., Silicon Valley and Boston) or in small pockets across the nation (e.g., Austin and Atlanta). These clusters are drawing more and more tech talent to them. But while these and a handful of other ‘tech centers’ have sprung up in the U.S., the truth is that very few communities in this country have grown from a technology and innovation perspective. A recent report by Brookings confirms that most communities are losing technology, not gaining it… Which brings me to the subject of Newport, Arkansas.”
Cazes then went on to report on our “star-studded September 16  ribbon cutting for Newport’s Tech Depot and IT Apprenticeship Academy,” for which Governor Asa Hutchinson delivered the keynote to an enthusiastic audience of state dignitaries who had made the drive to Newport for the festivities. That was a great day for Newport and for Arkansas. Charles Morgan, CEO of First Orion and Chairman of ACDS, said at the time, “I’ve been wanting to get something like this started in this state for decades.”
Now I’ve been asked by the folks at ACDS to tell how this past year has gone. Like with anything new, it’s definitely been a learning process. One smart decision we made was to take it slow, to keep our apprenticeship classes smaller than we might have. We wanted to learn how the whole process works and figure out what we needed to tweak here and there before we got too big and had too many companies that we might’ve had a snafu with.
Fortunately, everything’s worked great. Our first class started about a month and a half after our big debut, and I think we’ve had five classes come through in all. It’s been smooth, and we’ve had a number of different companies participate in the project, so we’re getting ready to ramp up and diversify what we’re doing. We’re going to keep doing the CompTIA A+ certification through our partnership with ACDS—they’re doing a great job helping recruit companies and apprentices for that.
But we’re also working on a partnership directly with ASU Newport, in which we reach out to existing companies to train their incumbent workers in Microsoft 365 operations—Excel, Word, PowerPoint. A lot of our small companies, and even some of our larger ones, have difficulty finding the funding to send employees off to Little Rock or to ASU for a two-day training seminar and putting them up in a hotel and feeding them. It can also be prohibitive to bring a trainer in. So what we’re doing is working with one of our large businesses now to launch an in-town program. They want Microsoft Excel for about 15 of their incumbent employees, but they want to do two days a week, skip a couple of weeks, do two days a week, skip a couple of weeks, and so on. Our job is to be flexible. Whatever their schedule needs to be, we can make it work.
That flexibility is very attractive to our local businesses. In the fall, we’re going to do a Word, Excel, and PowerPoint class for our small industries, companies with one or two people or maybe even just a single entrepreneur who needs to go through a class because he or she isn’t up to speed on these programs but has to have them for their business. Those courses are going to come online probably in September. Bottom line, we’re trying to maximize just computer, IT, and technical training for business in a completely business-flexible environment.
We also got a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to build our new building for this tech training facility. We’ll begin bidding that out probably in September, and hopefully we can get construction started in November or December.
It’s a very exciting time here in Newport. Since we opened the Tech Depot last fall, we’ve had two technology company prospects. One we’re really close to landing, and the other we’re just in the initial stages of visiting with them about coming here. But—and this is important to remember—they’re only interested in us because there’s going to be technology training here. They can see a pipeline for employees right here in Newport.
We think that kind of attention from outside companies is going to grow as our Tech Depot grows. We also think and believe that our local tech training is an opportunity for people who live in Newport, and want to keep living in Newport, to get the skills to become remote workers for companies located in other Arkansas towns, or even in other states. For example, our local workers could apply to a company in Louisiana and live in Newport and just work for them. So we think we’re creating a whole lot of opportunity here. Companies in all industries are going to require more and more IT people, and the things we’re doing at the Tech Depot are helping to make our future workers attractive to all kinds of companies.
MY OWN TECH background is basically self-taught. I do remember that in high school my mom made me take typing on an electric typewriter. I was in a public school, but we had a nun there who taught typing, and she would whack our fingers with the ruler if we looked at our keyboards.
When I got into the economic development field, my budgets were always small and I didn’t have anybody to assume any of the tech work for me, so by reason of necessity I got thrown into being the IT person—along with whatever else I had to do. I remember in my first Chamber of Commerce job, the Internet was just coming out. We had a webpage, which was literally one page with our contact information on it. Back then, email addresses weren’t free—you had to subscribe to AOL or something like that. So I went to my board meeting and said, “Guys, we need to get an email address for the chamber. It’s going to cost us this much, but we’ve got to have it. It’s what’s happening in the future.” And I had one older board member who got so irate. He just threw a book down on the desk and said, “Look, people want to hold paper in their hands, and we have a fax machine. This fad will never replace the fax machine.”
I don’t run into that kind of thinking much anymore. These days, the people I work with share my view that we in economic development need to have the technical capabilities to do whatever business needs to do, because our job is to interact with business. In Newport, we’ve done a really good job of diversifying our economy. We have heavy metals here. We have agriculture. We have food processing. We have medical marijuana processing. So, we’ve got a diversity in manufacturing, and we saw adding technology into the mix as just a way of helping diversify even more. Sectors of the economy tend to hit bubbles, and it’s a cycle, so every sector is going to have this time when it has a wild growth, hits a bubble, and bursts. The more diversified we are, the better suited we are to grow.
Tech, then, is the next component. I started talking with G.B. Cazes about this back in about 2019, and he introduced me to ACDS, which has been a great partner. We’ve also got the partnership with ASU Newport, and our downtown nonprofit has come on board; because they’re a nonprofit, it’s allowed us to get some Microsoft licensing at no cost, which we would’ve otherwise had to pay for. So, there are just all these partners coming in and bringing additional resources.
Also, we just got a grant from the state to partner with our library downtown. There’s a vacant lot next to the library that we’re going to pave and make it into an outdoor Wi-Fi accessibility point. So we’ll beef up the Wi-Fi at the library to cover that parking lot area, and if the library ever has to be closed and schools are closed and they’re doing virtual learning, people who don’t have good Wi-Fi at home can pull their car into this area and get on Wi-Fi. We hope to put some trees and tables in the middle of it, and then they can just sit outside, download schoolwork, fill out unemployment applications, look for jobs. They can do all those things that today require computers, when they didn’t in the past.
In fact, close to 75 percent of our businesses in town no longer take paper applications. I asked one of our manufacturers, “How do you feel about not taking paper applications anymore?” And he said, “Look, we have to have people who can be computer literate, and if they’re not literate enough to get on the computer and fill out an application for the job, then they’re not going to be qualified to do half of what we have in the plan for them to do.” Today’s industry has computer numeric controls, and workers have to have some tech savvy even in a manufacturing plant.
We’ve had some other towns in Arkansas come up to see what we’re doing. That’s how we work in this profession—we see what other people are doing and then try to figure out how to adapt these lessons to our own situation. One thing we and other towns like ours want to do is work on initiatives to keep our young people in town, or to give them a reason, and an opportunity, to move back to town.
It’s normal for kids to grow up and want to go see the world. I grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford’s a great place, but when I got out of school, I wanted to go anywhere else. That’s part of growing up, and it’s fine.
But five or six years down the road, when they’re married and have their own kids, their priorities are different. I’d like to raise my kid like I was raised, they think. I was a Newport Greyhound and I want my kid to be one too. At that point, if you can show them that there’s career opportunity here at home, it’s a strong selling point.
And the real estate prices are a whole lot better in Arkansas than they are in Silicon Valley. If you take a 100-point scale and the average cost of living in the United States is 100, the cost of living in Little Rock is 86 compared to the U.S. average cost of living. But the cost of living in Newport is like 72. So you basically realize 28 percent more of your salary for discretionary spending than you do if you go to your average United States city. Most of that is in the cost of housing and transportation, your two big expenses. In Newport, you’re not commuting 45 minutes to get to a job. You’re commuting four minutes. Who’s going to beat that?