When your state is not clean enough or educated enough to land a car plant, it’s time to re-evaluate your priorities.
Arkansas continues to rest its economic development hopes on attracting a major automobile manufacturing facility to Marion, where a “supersite” has been prepared for that purpose.
However, two major obstacles stand in the way.
First, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared the air quality in Crittenden County (where Marion is located) below fed-eral standards. This would make a new car plant there more expensive, because it would be more tightly regulated.
Second, the auto companies don’t consider our workers smart enough to work in their factories. In fact, they are turning down the millions of dollars in subsidies we offer them because that isn’t enough to compensate for what it would cost to train people here.
In light of these developments, are our leaders trying to improve the environment and education levels? Not exactly.
When the EPA issued its rating, Arkansas officials did not express concern for the health of the residents there — they attacked the EPA. Gov. Mike Huckabee immediately threatened to sue the federal agency, saying that the designation is unfair because most of the dirty air is generated by Memphis, which is just across the Mississippi River from the county. Our U.S. senators made the same point in a letter to the EPA administrator.
Regardless of where the pollution comes from, the Crittenden County population still has to breathe it. And if the air is so bad that it can prevent businesses from locating in the state, the energies of our elected officials might be better directed toward finding ways to clean it up.
Furthermore, we should be encouraging businesses to meet the EPA standards instead of suing to overturn them. Companies in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which includes firms that incorporate environmental and societal concerns into their long-term economic invest-ment strategies, outperformed the 2,500 largest capitalized companies that make up the Dow Jones Global Index between 1993 and 2003.
According to an article published in the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service newsletter, “This evidence challenges the traditional notion that complying with environmental regulations saps profitability and suggests that going ‘beyond compliance’ can result in a competitive advantage. For example, firms with better environmental records may be more attractive to investors due to reduced compli-ance costs and a lower risk of future liabilities.”
That makes sense when you consider the added costs that would be attached to any new facility in Marion. Under the EPA mandates, an auto plant there would have to emit fewer than 100 tons of pollutants per year, or else it would have to invest in equipment that would reduce existing air contaminants at a 1:1 ratio with what it puts out.
An executive with Hino, a Toyota subsidiary that is building an auto parts factory in Marion (thought to be a sign that Toyota will eventu-ally locate a major assembly plant there), last year cited the EPA ruling as a “slight concern” during a press conference in Little Rock.
That may be polite Japanese understatement. Toyota never has built a manufacturing facility in a county with high levels of ozone.
And it was Toyota that decided this month to put a new auto manufacturing facility in Canada because the workers there were better edu-cated.
According to a Canadian Press article, “several U.S. states were reportedly prepared to offer more than double” the subsidy that Toyota re-ceived from the Canadian government. But an industry group president said that extra money would have been “eaten away” by higher training costs.
“He said Nissan and Honda have encountered difficulties getting new plants up to full production in recent years in Mississippi and Ala-bama due to an untrained — and often illiterate — workforce,” the article went on. Referring to our region, the expert said, “The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario.”
This proves that, for all of the conviction that a car plant would be the short-term fix for some of Arkansas’s economic problems, it is no substitute for a serious long-term investment in our environment and education system. After already settling for 20th-century industrial jobs, it is embarrassing to learn that we can’t even compete effectively for them.
The best strategy would be to focus on getting cleaner and smarter, so we can set our sights on attracting the kinds of 21st-century jobs that could grow and stabilize our economy in the years to come.