Arkansas' scribbled eastern border and the lines in the state's Economic Development Commission's office couldn't be more contrasting. Sleek, modern furniture practically extends a sophisticated arm through the floor-to-ceiling glass door before guests even set foot on the office’s black bamboo floors. It’s not how you’d imagine the interior of a government agency or of the dull brick building that used to house the headquarters of the homegrown Dillard’s enterprise.
That’s just the way Executive Director Maria Luisa Haley planned it. She had a hand in the design, just as she does all aspects of the agency’s operations and, really, anything related to economic development in Arkansas. On this particular Monday, the University of Arkansas has invited the agency to participate in a teleconference interview of a candidate for vice provost for research and economic development. Besides the obvious connection, it makes sense for the agency to be involved with the university. Over the past four years Haley and Gov. Mike Beebe have turned the link between education and economic development into a mantra.
Rightfully so. Companies in Arkansas have said in the past that they were forced to look outside the state for employees with the proper skills. Haley regards education workforce development as the toughest challenge the agency faces. But despite it, her team has lured an impressive list of international companies to the Natural State. They include the Danish clean-energy company LM Windpower, the Indian pipe-maker Welspun, the multinational Hewlett-Packard and the worldwide machine manufacturer Caterpillar. “People are starting to take note,” Haley says. “Arkansas has a very good reputation right now and is very credible in the economic development world.”
Haley is just beginning to travel internationally to build upon that reputation. So how had the agency been attracting projects? The state’s balanced budget, lower unemployment rate, hospitality, beauty, quality of life and work ethic have helped, but process-wise, it’s always different. A site consultant approaches the state, a company’s board member inquires or state officials catch wind of a potential project and pursue it. Although every project is different, most are shrouded in secrecy, so Haley and her team constantly monitor for new opportunities and talk in code about the ones underway. It’s often the only means of communication they have because many companies don’t reveal themselves until Arkansas is on the shortlist. Mitsubishi went by Project Lighting, LM Windpower by Project Zephyr.
The mysterious global work suits Haley even better than the tailored black outfit she’s wearing. Her résumé includes work advising companies in Asia on client development and service with Kissinger McLarty Associates, roles with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, board membership on the Export Import Bank of the United States and more than 10 years with the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.
A lot’s changed besides the name since Haley first joined the agency, back when Gov. Clinton announced he would open the state to the international marketplace. Today there are 75 foreign-owned companies here, and they employ 13,500 people. When she left in 1992, Wal-Mart and Tyson were just beginning to delve into foreign markets. Now the agency wouldn’t think of operating without dedicated project managers for Europe and Asia and representation in Tokyo and Beijing.
For her accomplishments, the Lions World Services for the Blind (LWSB) will honor Haley with the Vision Award at a luncheon on November 11 at the DoubleTree Hotel. So what’s her vision for the state’s future?
“I came to the state as an immigrant bride, and this country and this state gave me tremendous opportunities and experiences that have enhanced my life. My vision is that I can give back to Arkansas and collaborate with the state leadership to provide the same opportunities for our citizens: to bring prosperity, economic growth and a sense of pride to be an Arkansan.”