Residents of Arkansas are living in a time when the state is changing and that presents some challenges, Rex Nelson told those in attendance at last Saturday’s Paris Area Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet. The banquet took place at The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park.
Nelson is a former reporter and Washington Bureau Chief for the Arkansas Democrat. He has also served as Chief of Staff for then-U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson and as Director of Policy and Communications for former Gov. Mike Huckabee. He has been Co-Chair of the Delta Regional District and is currently President of the Arkansas Independent Colleges organization.
The challenges, Nelson said, are managing demographic and political changes in the state.
"We really live in a time when the state is changing," Nelson said. "Our first big challenges is demographic change."
Nelson pointed out that according to the 2010 Census 39 counties in the state gained population and 36 lost since the 2000 Census.
"Logan County’s population held steady," Nelson said.
"Monroe County had the biggest drop, 20.5 percent," Nelson said. "Benton County had the largest increase at 44.3 percent.
"Monroe County is like living in the Deep South. Benton County is like living in the Midwest," he said.
"Close you eyes for a minute and imagine a giant magnet and it’s pulling our population to the north and the west," he said. "That has vast ramifications to our state.
"My fear is that Arkansas will almost split into two states within a state," Nelson said. "It will be growing counties and counties that aren’t growing."
Nelson also said the state is experiencing sweeping political changes, especially in the last two elections, which saw a rise in the number of Republican office holders.
"In the last two election cycles, our Congressional delegation has gone from five to one Democrats to five to one Republicans," he said. "That is a massive change."
He also pointed to the upcoming election for Governor.
"This election for Governor is very important," he said. "We’re going to have to have someone who can work with both parties and who can navigate through our challenges.
"Also, there is no incumbent and no clearly defined front-runner in the race for Governor," Nelson said. "That’s the first time that has happened since 1968 and the election of Winthrop Rockefeller."
After pointing out the challenges, Nelson offered two solutions.
"Electing officials who care about Arkansas first and party second will be important," he said. "We need to also do more with Arkansas history and culture in our schools.
"We live in the most beautiful state in America and we have the most friendly people," he said. "How can you beat that? We need to bring people to this mountain and show them the beautiful Arkansas River Valley and tell them they live in the most beautiful spot in America."