City & County

Justices hear from newly formed minority business group

By Joel Phelps
The Arkadelphian

A local group has formed in an effort to ascertain that minorities receive representation in job creation from a 1/2-cent economic development sales tax.

At least 35 local African-American businesses have banded together to create the Minority Business Council of Clark County in response to what its leaders are calling incomplete guidelines proposed by the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County. Led by the Rev. Johnny Harris, the MBCCC has been incorporated with the state as a limited liability company.

“The people who worked on developing these guidelines really took to heart the concerns and criticisms that were expressed in the community,”

— Eric Hughes, EDCCC vice chair

Harris made this announcement Monday during a Quorum Court meeting when justices of the peace gave him a 10-minute window to voice concerns over the proposed guidelines on how the EDCCC can spend tax funds collected for the purpose of creating jobs and attracting business to Clark County.

The issue the African-American community has with the guidelines, Harris said, is that promises were made during the 2021 campaign to renew the tax but now are apparently being forgotten as the newly collected funds sit idly in an account waiting on approval on how they can be spent. 

“Promises were made, and some of these things have not been addressed. African-American businesses in Clark County need a voice.”

— the Rev. Johnny Harris, MBCCC

How the original tax that funded the EDCCC’s incentives account was strictly regulated by state law and only allowed for creating a set number of primary, or manufacturing, jobs. While the recent ballot didn’t change the amount collected from taxpayers, it opened doors for a variety of other spending opportunities with a more relaxed structure with the application process for potential businesses.

“Promises were made, and some of these things have not been addressed,” said Harris, an Arkadelphia native and retired educator. During the campaign, he noted, the black business community was promised fair representation. Justice Albert Neal has been an outspoken opponent of the guidelines as they were proposed because, he says, tax proponents have reneged on a guarantee that black businesses would be represented. To date Neal, one of two African-American JPs, has been the lone dissenting vote on the proposed guidelines. Neal selected Harris to speak at Monday’s meeting.

“African-American businesses in Clark County need a voice,” Harris said. “Let’s try hard enough and let’s make sure African-American businesses are included specifically.”

Justice Vanilla Hannah brought up a section included in the guidelines that names economically distressed communities as grant recipients, but Harris said the language was too subjective. 

“I’ve accepted the fact the Quorum Court has not been involved as much as we probably should have.”

— Tom Calhoon, justice of the peace

Justice Ricky Arnold pointed out that the guidelines were written based on language included in the ballot itself to create jobs without being exclusive to any single group.

Justice Tom Calhoon inserted an admission. “I’ve accepted the fact the Quorum Court has not been involved as much as we probably should have,” Calhoon said. “But we instructed the EDCCC that we want more information, more opportunity to inject what our supervision might be. It’s our job. We can micromanage the thing to pieces and nobody will submit, or we can say ‘You do this, present it to us and if we think you’re going off course’ like not including minority business, then it’s our responsibility to stop it.

“But we can’t stop it before it starts,” Calhoon continued. “We’ve got to get it started and funded and move forward so we can say [the EDCCC is] doing a good job or not doing a good job.”

Harris said it didn’t matter to the newly formed group who writes or submits the guidelines so long as the black community is involved in the final process of job creation and sustainability. “The campaign came to the African-American community and asked for votes,” he said. “This proposal is not finished yet.”

In closing, Harris said the newly formed group will be assisting its shareholders in securing grants from the EDCCC. Of the funds the EDCCC has on hand, he said, “We’re not asking for all of it, but we’d sure like to have a good chunk of it.”

Local attorney Eric Hughes, who serves as the vice chairman for the EDCCC, offered a rebuttal and was given the same amount of time to speak.

Hughes said some 30-40 residents — including Harris — were part of a “number of” subcommittees tasked with writing the guidelines for the new tax money. Those subcommittees, Hughes said, “did a pretty good job of answering the criticisms and concerns” regarding how the previous tax money was used. Reiterating that the old tax was specifically for manufacturing jobs, Hughes said the EDCCC’s “hands were tied” by state laws governing how the money could be used, but that the new tax is collected under a different statute, allowing much broader requirements for applicants.

Addressing the idea of Harris’ MBCCC organization, Hughes said it wouldn’t be allowable for the EDCCC to dole out funds to another entity. “If the idea is to have more transparency and accountability, that’s going in the opposite direction,” Hughes said. “That would mean a third party receiving EDCCC tax money and dispersing it how they see fit.” Harris later clarified that the MBCCC wasn’t organized to receive funds but rather to aid African-American businesses in the application process.

Hughes said the guidelines are in fact so broad that “I bet you can’t find a category you can’t get an application under.” Grant funding for job creation would still be at the EDCCC’s discretion. Regarding the proposed guidelines, Hughes applauded the subcommittees’ work. “The people who worked on developing these guidelines really took to heart the concerns and criticisms that were expressed in the community,” he said. “We’re asking the Quorum Court to approve the guidelines so we can get to work, get a new Alliance director and start working on more economic development projects.”

Hughes then took questions. Arkadelphia clinic practitioner Cassie Gonzales inquired about transparency among the EDCCC and the Arkadelphia Alliance, the private entity that receives 25 percent of the tax funds to oversee day-to-day job creation activities. Gonzales said her concerns were the job expectations by which the Alliance is judged. Referring to former CEO Stephen Bell, she said “there were no measures he was being judged by for quite some time until it got to the end of his tenure.” Gonzales said she learned that information from both EDCCC board members as well as Alliance employees.

“We’re handing money back over to the Alliance, and we really don’t know as taxpayers, once again, anything that goes on over there.” Hughes offered a background of how the EDCCC was created to disburse the sales tax and how the Alliance was formed to oversee the daily operations of how the tax was spent. With the EDCCC’s executive officers also serving on the private Alliance board, “the EDCCC always knows what the Alliance is doing,” Hughes said. Gonzales rebutted: “Maybe it’s [that] the public doesn’t know what the Alliance is doing is where the problem is,” she said.

Calhoon spoke again, suggesting he and his fellow justices take responsibility “from this point on” to ascertain the Alliance and EDCCC are doing “what the public wants.” But, he added, “we can’t take 10 people’s opinion and say ‘That’s what it is.’ We’ve got to do the best job we can. They’re taking responsibility now. We’ll say we’re going to supervise — not day-to-day, but overall supervise.”

In a 7-1 vote, the court heard the first reading of the ordinance establishing the guidelines. Neal was the only dissenting vote. The court will consider a second reading at its February meeting.

3 replies »