Walton family-backed think tank releases research report to aid Arkansas’ post-pandemic recovery

July 19-25, 2021

By The Daily Record staff


At the behest of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Walton Foundation’s Heartland Forward on July 7 published a new report that offers guidance to Arkansas policymakers seeking to bolster the state’s economic rebound and growth as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. 


In the 77-page report, called the “Arkansas Economic Recovery Strategy,” the Bentonville-based Heartland Forward analyzed comprehensive data across six key economic areas commissioned by the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force. This high-level, public-private advisory panel was created by a Gov. Hutchinson executive order at beginning of the pandemic in April 2020 to examine the impact of COVID-19 on industry in Arkansas.


The task force, which includes business leaders and policymakers from the private sector and top state government agencies, also make recommendation to the governor on how to shift the state’s economy out of low gear consistent with public health. Hutchinson created the economic recovery task force, chaired by Northwest Arkansas business leader and Walmart board director Steuart Walton, after Arkansas has lost more than 133,000 jobs due to coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders at the beginning of the 16-month long health crisis.


Under the panel’s watch, the Heartland Forward think tank was tasked with studying Arkansas’ talent and workforce; innovation and research; entrepreneurship and small business; health care; supply chain resilience; and high-speed internet. Informed by an extensive analysis of Arkansas’ strengths, weaknesses and qualitative data from interviews, the report found that Arkansas policymakers have an opportunity to demonstrate that Arkansas punches above its weight class and can be a national leader in many areas.


“Arkansas’ natural beauty, economic resilience, and robust workforce are the keys to dynamic economic growth,” Hutchinson said. “A custom-made strategy such as this that considers the needs of all regions of the state is essential as we move out of the pandemic and return to the booming economy we were building before COVID-19.”


Like the rest of the nation, the study concluded that Arkansas was hard-hit by the pandemic but in unique ways. For example, the state’s high rate of chronic health conditions, and in some cases, the urban-rural digital divide, exacerbated the impact. In some Arkansas counties, more than 35% of households have no access to internet— an essential element of working and learning from home. 


Despite this, the report found that Arkansas boasts an array of qualities including affordable housing, family-friendly communities and natural amenities. The state has yet to reach its economic potential, ranking second in the nation for the share of its workforce in skilled trades, and touting powerhouses such as Tyson Foods, the University of Arkansas system, Murphy USA, Windstream, J.B. Hunt, Walmart, ArcBest, and Dillard’s.


“Suffice it to say, like the rest of the nation, it has been a challenging year for the state of Arkansas. Just as the impact of the pandemic has varied by state, approaches to economic recovery should as well—this is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” said Ross DeVol, president and CEO of Heartland Forward. “We’re inspired to share this strategy for the recovery of our home state and honored that Governor Hutchinson’s Task Force is bringing these important findings to the table.”


The report also outlines specific recommendations for Arkansas policymakers, including expanding workforce apprenticeship programs, building upon remote incentive programs such as Life Works Here, maintaining reimbursement parity for telemedicine for rural residents, and deploying digital divide initiatives such as Heartland Forward’s Connectivity Corps. With targeted action, Arkansas can equip itself to tap into the national knowledge-based economy and attract dynamic talent.


“The strategy outlined by Heartland Forward is aspirational and embodies just the type of big thinking that our state needs right now,” said Walton, chair of the task force. “Stakeholders from every corner of this state helped inform this report and it will take that same approach to make these big ideas become a reality. I am honored to have been a part of this work and proud to be an Arkansan.”


Heartland Forward is delivering its strategy proposal to the Economic Recovery Task Force at a critical time as Hutchinson steps into his role as chairman of the National Governors Association. In that role, Hutchinson will serve as NGA chair through 2021-2022. Heartland Forward officials noted that policymakers across all 50 states are in search of a blueprint for recovery, and the proposed strategy positions Arkansas to demonstrate what states can accomplish with a nuanced approach such as Heartland Forward has prepared.


Launched in October 2019 as a first-of-its-kind “think and do” tank spearheaded by members of the Walton family, Heartland Forward was founded to focus on advancing economic performance in the center of the U.S. Led by past Walton Family Foundation fellow Ross Devos, a former chief research widely acclaimed Milken Institute, the Bentonville-based research group has began ramping up staff and capacity in the past year.


On June 23, the Northwest Arkansas nonprofit announced that former Pine Bluff native and Goldman Sachs research analyst Paige Jernigan had joined the think tank as the nonprofit’s new director of development. In this role, Jernigan will lead Heartland Forward’s efforts to raise funding for the organization supporting its research and program work aimed at accomplishing the mission of improving the economic performance of the center of the U.S. Jernigan will work in tandem with Blake Woolsey, chief communications and development officer of Heartland Forward.


Besides Devol, Heartland Forward’s inaugural research team and authors included Richard Florida, Steven Pedigo, Minoli Ratnatunga, and Dave Shideler. As the think tank’s chief research officer, Shideler oversees research focused on identifying practical tools and policies communities can use to enhance economic performance and prosperity.


An economist, Florida’s studies center on demography and urban development, and he currently serves as professor of business & creativity at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Ratnatunga is an economist and Heartland Forward fellow, focuses her work at think tanks, nonprofits and public institutions to inform and improve decision-making.


Steven Pedigo, an Austin native and entrepreneur, is an expert in economic and urban development, anchor engagement, city strategy and placemaking. The Austin native has founded two university research, policy and engagement centers at the University of Texas at Austin and New York University in Manhattan.


In its research, Heartland Forward uses the U.S. Census regions of East North Central, West North Central, East South Central, and West South Central to define the Heartland. These regions cover the 20 states in the middle of the country: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.


According to organization officials, the Walton Family-backed nonprofit will publish original research on topics ranging from millennials in the Heartland to the impact of start-ups on Heartland economies. To reach the full Arkansas Economic Recovery Strategy report can be found here: https://heartlandforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/AERS_Digital_FINAL.pdf  


  • Heartland Forward President and CEO Ross Devol
    Heartland Forward President and CEO Ross Devol