The outside sector

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In 2013, Katherine Andrews earned a finance degree from the University of Arkansas and joined Hathaway Group, a commercial real estate company in Little Rock. Three years later, she joined the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which she described at the time as “the state’s sales team.”

Andrews worked on economic development projects throughout Arkansas. She particularly enjoyed working in small towns like Trumann.

“A company was expanding its manufacturing facilities and needed help with incentives,” she says. “It made a huge difference to the people of this city. I’m the only woman in the room at times, and it took me a long time to be able to walk into that room with confidence and know what I was saying and look in people’s eye. I would encourage more women to go out and pursue it.

Andrews’ first five years at AEDC were spent as a project manager in the business development department. In May 2021, she was named Director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship Development.

Doing so has paid off for Andrews. Last November, she was elected head of the newly created Office for Outdoor Recreation. I believe that this office will be one of the most important parts of the state government. That’s because Arkansas’ outdoor recreation attributes greatly enhance the state’s ability to attract and retain the kind of talented people we need to thrive in the 21st-century knowledge-based economy.

One who agrees with my assessment is Tom Walton of Bentonville. On the day of the announcement, Walton said, “With today’s announcement of the selection of Katherine Andrews to lead the new Office of Outdoor Recreation with a dedicated team, we will make Arkansas a formidable competitor in tourism, talent and industry recruitment, of course outdoor experiences, who can compete with the best in the nation.”

Bright young people learn about our world-class hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, bird watching, kayaking, canoeing and other outdoor activities. Tom Walton and his brother Steuart are leading a statewide effort to improve those experiences to set Arkansas apart from other states.

Andrews has a powerhouse board filled with Arkansas outdoor legends like George Dunklin, Mike Mills and Bill Barnes. gov. Asa Hutchinson has tasked the office with leading efforts to “grow the outdoor recreation economy, work with partners toward improved health outcomes, and promote awareness of the full range of recreational experiences the state has to offer.”

“Katherine is an Arkansan native and an avid participant in outdoor recreation,” says Hutchinson. “These qualities combined with her experience in small business development and entrepreneurship make her an ideal fit for the job.”

Utah was the first state to create a bureau focused on the outdoor recreation economy. Arkansas was only the second Southern state to do so, after North Carolina.

“I was fascinated by the outdoor aspect of the job,” says Andrews as we have lunch at the Capital Bar & Grill in downtown Little Rock. “I loved working at AEDC. I consider these people family. But I was convinced that the time was right to expand the outdoor recreation industry. We want entrepreneurs to spring up across the state. We want to be the office that bridges the efforts of organizations like the Nature Conservancy, AEDC, and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.”

Andrews says that by tearing down the walls between these different entities, Tom and Steuart Walton’s vision will become a reality. She says she is working to “uncover the barriers to growth in this sector of our economy and then find ways to remove those barriers.”

In the first four months of her job, Andrews drove her car 3,300 miles to visit people across the state. She also looks forward to working with other states to see “what worked and what failed.

Andrews hopes the office will conduct an economic impact study to identify trends and identify areas of opportunity. She also wants to complete a health and wellness study that will serve to educate the public about the benefits of outdoor recreation. Another goal is a website that allows people to search for everything from boat builders to fishing guides.

“Eventually we will have a job portal for those who want to work in this sector,” says Andrews. “We also need to establish a business alliance for outdoor leisure activities. That kind of coordination could really make a difference.”

A few weeks after lunching with Andrews, I find myself having lunch in Fayetteville Square with Phil Shellhammer, director of the University of Arkansas’ Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program, commonly known as GORP. The Business Incubator is part of the University’s Office for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The program is supported by a $4.1 million donation from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

Matt Waller, dean of UA’s Sam Walton College of Business, says the grant helped the school create “an entrepreneurial culture around outdoor recreation.” The program will train entrepreneurs focused on hospitality, service and experience businesses geared towards outdoor recreation. It will also support product design and development startups in the outdoor industry.

Shellhammer was appointed head of this program the same month that Andrews was appointed head of the state government office.

A native of Ohio, Shellhammer earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He worked for companies like Best Buy and Procter & Gamble before moving to Arkansas in 2009 to work for Sam’s Club. He became vice president of the merchandising department.

In 2019, Shellhammer founded two education-focused tech startups, Eksplor Gaming and Wize Computing Academy, which teach programming.

Shellhammer says he’s excited about “helping other entrepreneurs achieve their goals. . . . Additionally, I was attracted by its potential to stimulate significant economic impact on our region. The focus on outdoor recreation didn’t hurt either, as many of the activities we do cater to my personal interests.”

The so-called GORP incubator will host a small group of companies twice a year. These startups participate in a structured 12-week program of training and up to $15,000 in funding per company that does not require the business owner to give up any equity.

“This program is intended to be an important catalyst for the success of these entrepreneurs and the positive economic impact they will create,” says Shellhammer.

He says his true love is helping other companies succeed. Shellhammer sees GORP as growing existing businesses in Arkansas, bringing in businesses from other states and creating new businesses.

“We can create innovative products and services here in Arkansas that enhance the state’s existing outdoor recreation experiences,” he says. “Once people come here to experience things like our climbing, some will stay. That only adds to our leisure infrastructure.”

He says entrepreneurs will learn of past successes in the state, such as Arkansas being the home of the bass boat.

“We’re all about innovation,” Shellhammer says of GORP. “We’re all about taking ideas and turning those ideas into businesses. States like Colorado and Utah have incubators like us, but there aren’t many in our part of the country.”

With the state government, the state’s flagship university, the Walton brothers and visionaries like Dunklin, Mills and Barnes all pulling together, Arkansas could be on the brink of a new era.

In a state where the economy was once dominated by cotton and then by attempts to attract low-wage manufacturing jobs, who would have dreamed that the streams, rivers, lakes, forests and mountains would be our economic salvation?

Rex Nelson is senior editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.