DYNAMIC DUO TO LEAD Clarksville-Johnson County Chamber

August 1, 2011 | By More

The Clarksville-Johnson County Chamber of Commerce’s new management team is on a strategic mission to build a better Clarksville, business by business.

New CEO and Chief Development Officer of the chamber, Travis Stephens, summed up his vision for the county’s future in one word — jobs.

“The name of the economic development game is more and higher paying jobs,” said Stephens. A former banker with Bank of the Ozarks in Ft. Smith, Stephens said although he liked banking, his community-minded spirit led him to get a Masters degree in Community Economic Development from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Stephens took over the CEO position on May 1, 2011.

Stephens and his wife Kelli have strong family ties in Clarksville. His mother-in-law grew up in Clarksville and her brother still owns and operates Teeter’s Drugstore on Main Street. Their parents once ran Teeter’s Restaurant. Travis and Kelli have four daughters; they will be relocating from Fort Smith this next year.

“The previous organizational structure of the Chamber was not conducive to economic development because the Chamber had one person doing two jobs,” said Stephens. “The beauty of this new business model is that we have two people working together (one Economic Development Officer and one Chamber Director.)

The second new player on the Clarksville team is Brandy Garrett Kluthe, who started work as Chamber Director on July 5th. A former Peace Corp volunteer with a Master of Science degree in Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration with an emphasis in community development, Kluthe worked as Community Development Coordinator in Hamilton, IL. She started the Hamilton Community Development Coalition before moving to Clarksville four years ago with her husband John and their young children. For the past three and a half years she taught biology at Arkansas Tech University.

Kluthe already has several community activities planned: “We actually have lots of things in the works. The farmer’s market will be back and I am working on creating an interpretive element to the Spadra Creek Trail. I want to continue to work on the feeling that Clarksville is a great community live, work and play.”

“Jobs are very important to the vitality of the community and a diverse workforce allows us to grow, diversify and recruit new businesses,” said Kluthe. “One of the things new businesses look for, as well as prospective employees, is a good quality of life. I have learned a lot about what that means both in the U.S. and in working in West Africa. Most people get up every day and if they are lucky, they go to a job they like. Either way you go to work and when your workday is over the personal time you have left is very important,” said Kluthe.

“The question I have to work on is, do we have quality activities and services for people during that important free time? Johnson County already has many wonderful things available, enhancing and promoting what we already have is important as well as bringing in new services and activities,” Kluthe explained.

“If you look at a map you can see that Clarksville and Johnson County are really in the middle of everything. I would really like to tap that regional aspect as well,” Kluth added.

Stephens said he hired Kluthe for her enthusiastic desire to “make Clarksville the best small town you’d ever want to live in” and that he and Kluthe should make a good team.

“We’re going to be like Batman and Robin!” said Stephens with a smile.

While Kluthe will fulfill the traditional Chamber role of providing member services to local businesses as well as community development activities that generate a greater sense of town pride and well being, Stephens will be able to focus the majority of his efforts on economic development.

The dynamic duo plans to use Clarksville’s five-year strategic blueprint completed in 2010 by Boyette Strategic Advisors as their guide. The City of Clarksville Community Economic Development Committee, headed by Matt Wylie, president of First Security Bank in Clarksville, commissioned Boyette Strategic Advisors to compile a five-year plan to promote and attract new business to the area. Boyette has also been commissioned to complete strategic plans for the Ft. Smith Regional Alliance and the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and most recently Kentucky.

In addition to the strategic blueprint, a workforce analysis documents the quality and quantity of the region’s workforce. Industries targeted for Clarksville/Johnson County according to the strategic plan include retirement services, distribution-logistics companies, customer support centers and wind/energy related manufacturers.

“One key element of my job is to be the middleman between new and existing businesses at the local level and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) which provides tax and financial incentives, work force training programs and assistance with equipment purchases,” said Stephens.

Stephens will be the first point of contact for hiring and expansion of existing businesses. An equally important part of his job will be recruiting new business to the area through internet based marketing communications and cultivating relationships with representatives from the AEDC and relocation consultants who help expanding companies find communities that fit their criteria.

One of the reasons Stephens said he took the job with the Clarksville Chamber was that it was a small town with a Mayberry- esque quality but with a very progressive attitude and desire for bigger and better things.

One of Stephens’ first priorities will be to broaden the web presence for not just the Chamber but for the City and the region as a whole.

“In today’s economic development environment, businesses looking to expand or locate in a new area often hire outside consultants to do the leg-work work of finding best-fit communities. And the first place they go for information is the Internet. We must be able to provide the information they need in a user-friendly and inviting manner. Otherwise, we could end up losing in a game that we never even knew we were playing,” said Stephens.

Stephens stressed the “vital importance” of working in partnership with AEDC. When a business is looking to expand, there is typically a three-part recipe in site selection. The first is location; second is state and community incentives like tax abatements and both affordable and available land, and third is workforce training and support, he explained.

The city of Clarksville has already purchased a 126 acre site along Interstate I-40 and exit 55 that has great potential for attracting new business, said Stephens.

With the Marvin Vinson Center and early plans for a new pool and aquatic playground, as well as good medical facilities with the recently expanded Johnson County Regional Medical Center, the city has amenities that business like to see in the communities they expand in, he added.

“The quality of the workforce is paramount to these potential companies. And they know communities that have a lot to offer from a quality of life perspective will lead to a stable and quality employee base.”

Another area Stephens and Kluthe hope to expand on is Clarksville’s downtown area. Unlike many other cities where a Super Center has opened its doors, Clarksville still has a viable downtown area.

“Our initiative is to make downtown cool. We hope to provide free WI-Fi, have Friday night Artwalks and live music. We will also encourage entrepreneurial efforts to get more start-up businesses in the downtown area.”

Stephens plans to form strategic partnerships with the University of the Ozarks, the public school system, the business community as well as regional and state organizations. He also plans to be open and supportive of economic efforts in Russellville. Clarksville and Russellville are part of the same “labor shed” or labor pool of available employees, said Stephens.

“We can accomplish a lot more together than individually. There are endless examples of people who live in one community and work in the other so what’s good for one county will benefit both places. I want to keep an open line of communication so everybody is on the same page and we can work together to achieve common goals.”

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