For the first time in 21 years, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce has a new president. He is Jay Chesshir, a former president of the Hot Springs chamber for 11 years. He replaces Paul Harvel, a successful president who left the chamber at the end of May to become president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.
Chesshir was born 43 years ago in Arkadelphia and grew up in Nashville, where he played high school football. He is a business-administration graduate from the University of Arkansas. His friends say his hobby is dog training. His wife, Lara, is from Hot Springs, and they have three children.
A four-man committee of the Little Rock chamber chose him over several other persons largely because Chesshir really wanted the job, according to the committee. They also knew his work because he had left Hot Springs in 2005 and worked for the Little Rock chamber for nearly a year as the executive director of the Metro Little Rock Alliance (MLRA), which tries to bring more jobs and money to Central Arkansas.
Nothing is more important to the admiration and growth of a city than a chamber of commerce. Last year Little Rock’s chamber brought in $32 million in new payrolls just in Pulaski County. So I spent an hour listening to his thoughts and opinions.
JOB HUNTING: Chesshir described the MLRA that Harvel created. At first, he said, the people in the nearby counties paid their own way to join the Little Rock chamber’s trips to call on a business that the Arkansans guessed might come to one of their counties. “The only rule,” Chesshir said, “was that the people couldn’t tell what county or city they were from — just middle Arkansas.”
Now the 10 counties around Pulaski County nominate members for the alliance to join with those from Little Rock. They then go to the companies identified by Angelou Economics, a company in Austin, Texas, as thinking of expanding to places like Arkansas. So far the result has brought Cardinal Health with 500 employees and FTD Inc. to Sherwood and Ring Container to the Little Rock port.
Any new company in any of these counties helps everyone, Chesshir said, showing me a chart that shows how many people work in Pulaski County who live in every one of the 10 other counties. Example: 22,165 workers who live in Saline County drive to work in Pulaski County every day, and so do 13,248 from Lonoke County and 11,280 from Faulkner County.
EDUCATION: “The most important economic development announcement last year was the Trinity Foundation’s gift of $6 million to UALR for an engineering school,” Chesshir said. He also praised Superintendent Roy Brooks, saying he’d improved Little Rock’s schools. “Companies won’t even consider an area without an engineering school and good public schools.”
WHY TWO CHAMBERS?: Once Little Rock and North Little Rock were combined into one Chamber of Commerce. Why not try that again? “In some places it makes sense to combine, but not in other places that have such diverse needs,” he said.
“We have one regional chamber already that is doing things beyond its city levels, and we are doing things for North Little Rock that it couldn’t do on its own.” But he said Little Rock’s chamber cannot do more things than it is doing for North Little Rock, such as creating a website like the Little Rock Alliance Website, which is regarded as one of the best in the country.
“Whether we need one right across from another is not my decision to make,” Chesshir said. “The business communities in both cities have determined there’s a need for two.”
OUR TAXES: I showed Chesshir the recent Tax Foundation magazine that lists Arkansas as one of the 10 states with high taxes that businesses hate. Chesshir said that at least one of the states, Kentucky, has been great in recruiting businesses. “Some think Arkansas’s tax climate is very favorable,” he said, “especially our good low property tax. I think we rank very well.”
TERM LIMITS: Chesshir has spent time at the legislature supporting business-friendly bills, so I asked if he agreed with people who now say that it was a mistake to impose term limits. “I’m not certain we’ve created a system to make it as effective,” he said. “Asking people to work on something that is very complex, and about the time they understand it, they are not in office. We are going to have to look at that ...”