The closest I’ve come to attending an educational summer camp since my stint at Arkansas Girls State in 1999 is the retreat that made up the Leadership Arkansas Class IX inaugural session. It’s amazing the quick friendships you can make when there’s a hospitality suite.
But, first, a little background: each year, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas, Inc., selects 35 business professionals from across the state to be a part of a program designed to take a statewide view of the economic and political opportunities that face our state. The intent is to build a sense of statewide community instilling a sense of passion and commitment to become personally engaged in these issues, programs, and activities aimed at building a better Arkansas.
We kicked off our nine-month-long journey last November with three days at Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville to focus on a topic close to my CJRW heart: Arkansas Tourism. That was a good place to start, because over the course of the Leadership Arkansas program, we each traveled hundreds of miles back and forth across the state, doing just that, touring Arkansas.
Our first state-traversing adventure took us to Texarkana where we enjoyed our stay on the Arkansas side in the brand-new Holiday Inn Convention Center and ate what else but Tex-Mex – accompanied by margaritas – at Zapata’s. (I must also recommend the chili cheese fries at Fat Jack’s for an indulgent late night snack.) Also, if you’ve ever seen a ream of Staples brand paper, it was made at Domtar paper mill in Ashdown, Ark., and we learned that the most photographed courthouse in the country is the one that is divided by the Arkansas-Texas state line.
Back on my home turf in Little Rock, we welcomed traveling classmates to the newly renovated Marriott hotel in the River Market District. A couple of long days meeting with various government agencies opened our eyes to the nitty-gritty of the state budget. We debated our newly informed opinions over some famous Loca Luna cheese dip.
Batesville gave a twinkling glimpse of Arkansas’s awesome Trail of Holiday Lights and a taste of the yummy bread baking at Flowers Food. Bad Boy Mowers, a homegrown Arkansas company, inspired us with its classic American success story and impressed us all with its technology.
The Northwest Arkansas Council is working hard to promote and develop the region as a whole. Of course, it wowed with Crystal Bridges and 21c Museum Hotel, and the Razorbacks in the group managed to show our new pals the Fayetteville ropes: Tim’s Pizza, Maxine’s Tap Room, and Jose’s are all still solid standbys.
Across the state in West Memphis, we got some face-time with the greyhounds at Southland Park.
We wrapped our sessions up back at the Capitol with a visit to the Senate floor and headed back to the State Chamber to discuss of the state of our state based on everything we’d been exposed to throughout our time as a class.
It’s true, we had a lot of fun, but mostly we learned a lot about Arkansas; things we didn’t know it had to offer and things we might not have otherwise known that are existing or imminent challenges. The relationships we made over healthy debate (and food … and cocktails) will be ones that last, and, hopefully, ones that allow us to have an influence on the future of our state.