Columns » Warwick Sabin

To the moon

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MONTICELLO — Over Christmas Eve dinner, Judy Lassiter was talking about her grandmother, who was born in Howard County in 1889 and moved to the Texas panhandle as a newlywed in an ox-drawn wagon. One day, Judy watched her grandmother carefully carry dirty dishwater from the sink to her back porch, where she used it to water her flowers.

“Why don’t you just let it down the drain?” Judy asked.

Her grandmother replied, “If you’ve ever been to the well, you’ll never waste a drop of water.”

Those words were arresting, because earlier that day, I drove past what used to be the Burlington Rug plant, hulking quietly but conspicuously in the center of town, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It used to employ over 1,000 people, but now grass grows in the parking lot.

Like many other great communities in Arkansas, Monticello learned that out-of-state companies can move out as easily as they moved in. The empty Burlington facility is a tangible reminder of what is happening to the U.S. economy as manufacturing jobs are exported to other countries.

Just last Friday, Whirlpool closed its plant in Searcy, leaving over 700 people unemployed and capping a year in which about 8,500 manufacturing jobs were cut in Arkansas. Since 2002, the state has lost almost 10 percent of its manufacturing employment, and economic forecasters expect the trend to continue.

Meanwhile, Arkansas economic development officials still want to spend millions of dollars in subsidies, incentives and tax breaks to convince companies outside the state to locate plants here. The latest effort, to lure a German steelmaker, could cost up to $1 billion for 3,000 jobs.

As many times as we’ve been to the well, you would think we wouldn’t want to waste our water.

With that in mind, the real hope for Arkansas lies in self-sufficiency, which is derived from conservation, fresh thinking and making the most of what you have.

Judy’s husband, Jack Lassiter, is the chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, which is home to the state’s only school of forestry. He said that researchers have discovered that the unused residue of logging is among the most efficient ingredients for biofuels.

Every week seems to bring another such confirmation of how biofuels can be the way forward for Arkansas. They not only provide a ready market for our farmers, who are struggling. They offer an outlet for our other major industries, like timber and poultry, by utilizing their by-products.

Unlike manufacturing, which is clearly in decline in the U.S., biofuels seem poised for a dramatic rise to prominence in the coming years. As the finite supply of oil is depleted and instability in oil-producing nations continues, the price of oil will steadily increase and create demand for an alternative.

There is no state better positioned than Arkansas to meet that demand. Not only can we provide the necessary ingredients and make the fuel, but our location in the center of the country, along major supply routes and the Mississippi River, eases distribution.

Knowing this great opportunity is on the horizon, it only makes sense to prepare for it. We need a work force trained not only for the biofuels sector, but for the administrative and service industries necessary to support it. That means adequately funded public schools, and a strategic plan for the state’s vocational schools, community colleges and four-year universities.

Anticipating growth also means a renewed focus on rural health care services, which have been allowed to slowly deteriorate, along with transportation infrastructure.

This sounds like an unoriginal laundry list of what competes for funding every year, but that’s the point.

Often, what keeps us from achieving these obvious statewide objectives is selfish attachment to local interests, like keeping a particular school open or insisting on good roads in one part of the state instead of another. But if an objective panel of experts enumerated the things we need to do to become the leader in the development of biofuels, people might be willing to lay aside their parochial considerations and do what it takes to achieve the larger goal.

From the research lab to the field, from the refining to the distribution — not to mention all of the supporting industries — every part of Arkansas is sure to benefit from biofuels. Therefore, a step-by-step approach to fulfill that potential may be the one sure way to unite the state around a series of concrete goals for education, health care and transportation.

It would be the Arkansas version of the race to the moon: An extravagant but practical goal that inspires hope by setting it; a call for sacrifice and cooperation in service to the greater good, with innumerable benefits that accrue to future generations.

There are so many places around the state like Monticello that have a lot to offer, and they deserve this opportunity. Let’s not spill a single drop.

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