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Lincoln joins Heartland in recruiting medical industries

School district will pay one-half the fee by Lynn Kutter | June 7, 2023 at 12:43 p.m.

LINCOLN -- The city of Lincoln, with financial assistance from Lincoln Consolidated School District, has joined a regional organization created to try to bring medical manufacturing jobs to the U.S. Highway 62 corridor.

After some discussion, Lincoln City Council voted May 16 to become a member of Heartland Advanced Medical Manufacturing Regional Cluster. A part of membership is a $1,000 monthly fee.

The night before, May 15, Lincoln School Board voted to partner with the city and pay $500 of the $1,000 monthly fee.

Mary Ann Spears verbally committed to the $500 at the City Council's April meeting and then sought approval from the school board.

"I think it's good for the city of Lincoln to grow and the school to grow," Spears told her board members. "And we want the school to grow."

Board President Kenneth Adair said he also attended a presentation about Heartland at the council's April meeting and he agreed with Spears about paying one-half the monthly fee.

The school board approved paying $500/month with the condition the agreement would be reviewed in one year.

Lincoln City Council unanimously approved an ordinance for a membership subscription agreement for the city to participate in Heartland (referred to as HAMMRC) and then authorized a memorandum of understanding between the city of Lincoln and Lincoln School District.

Former city council member Johnny Stowers spoke at the beginning of the May 16 council meeting, objecting to both joining HAMMRC and to the MOU with the school.

Stowers said the regional organization is based on several assumptions that medical manufacturers will want to come to Northwest Arkansas and the Highway 62 corridor but he sees these as "fantasy at best."

For $1,000 a month, "HAMMRC will attempt to make this dream come true," Stowers said. "However, there is no guarantee that years down the line and thousands of dollars later that any of it will happen. The only guarantee we have is that they will take our money every month."

He asked the council to vote against the school MOU and joining the regional cluster, calling it a "boondoogle."

As the council began to discuss the ordinance, council member Billy Rusher said he wanted to hear from other council members what they thought about it.

Council member Mary West said she had been prepared to vote against it until she attended the organization's last board meeting. West said she listened during the one-and-a-half-hour meeting and came away "very impressed" with those involved.

"I hate for us to spend $500 a month. It's not something I'm for," West said, but noted the agreement allows Lincoln to decide to leave the organization at any point.

"If we do it, something good may come out of it," West said.

Mayor Doug Hutchens said he previously had not pushed joining the organization because Lincoln did not have any buildings available that possibly could be used to manufacture medical devices.

Some buildings in Lincoln will become available soon and could be possible sites, he said.

Hutchens noted there are manufacturing plants in Dutch Mills, Prairie Grove and a large one in Mountain Home.

"It's not outlandish to think small startups might come here," he said. "It's a small price to pay for some marketing horsepower. We at least will have our name on a short list."

At a minimum, Lincoln will receive good exposure, Hutchens said. Best case scenario, "we fill some buildings."

He added, "I don't go to the casino but this one is a pretty good shot."

Heartland is a two-state, nonprofit organization formed in 2021 to identify, attract and keep healthcare manufacturers in the Northwest Arkansas and Northeast Oklahoma area. It was formed to help smaller communities along the U.S. 62 corridor, not the larger cities of Fayetteville and Springdale.

Founding members are Fayetteville Chamber's Economic Development Authority and Tahlequah, Okla., Regional Development Authority. Other members so far are the Cherokee Nation and the cities of Farmington and Stilwell, Okla., and now the city of Lincoln.

Investors or sustaining members in the organization so far are Arvest Bank, SWEPCO, Ozarks Electric and Washington County.

All members have representatives that serve on the board of directors, which meets in a different location every other month.

To become a member, a city has to be incorporated, identify five acres of buildable land or available building space and pay $1,000 per month with a verbal commitment of 36 months but no penalty if a member decides to cancel the contract.

Wayne Mays, director of Heartland, last week said Lincoln will now have a "seat at the table" and Hutchens will be a member of the board of directors.

"We need Lincoln as much as they need us," Mays said. "They have some of the best available buildings for a startup for a medical manufacturing plant."

Lincoln will have some buildings that can be listed on Heartland's website for potential prospects to see, Mays said.

"We will hit the ground with some buildings in Lincoln."

Heartland is trying to aggressively market all the cities that have joined the organization and also is reaching out to prospects. Mays already has shown some sites to several prospects.

Mays said the organization does not make any guarantees to its members but the "availability of buildings to show those prospects is huge."

He said there are good reasons to be excited about Lincoln joining and the buy-in from the school board because of possible accessible sites along the highway, the community itself and the school district.

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