OPED answers budget questions at community event

Photo by Patric Flannigan 
From left, Sylvester Smith III, moderator speaks with Ouchita Partnership for Economic Development President Jim Golden, while Executive Director James Lee Silliman looks on at Saturday's informational meeting and public forum on OPED.
Photo by Patric Flannigan From left, Sylvester Smith III, moderator speaks with Ouchita Partnership for Economic Development President Jim Golden, while Executive Director James Lee Silliman looks on at Saturday's informational meeting and public forum on OPED.

An event was held over the weekend for the community to submit questions to a local economic development group.

Camden Alderwoman Ebony Gulley organized a community meeting with the Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development at St. Paul Baptist Church on Saturday. Attorney and Camden native Sylvester Smith III served as the moderator.

OPED Executive Director James Lee Silliman and OPED Board President Jim Golden were on hand to field questions from attendees and social media.

Before the meeting started, Smith asked Silliman and Golden to describe what OPED is.

Golden explained that the partnership serves as the economic arm and the primary contact for the area for economic opportunities. Smith, who noted that he has worked with economic development on the state level, later stated that every county needs a primary contact for such opportunities. Silliman went on to add that some of the other things OPED does includes providing small business training, office space and business incentives.

The next question dealt with the OPED budget. Smith and Silliman shared that OPED receives $155,000 in funding from the City of Camden and another $155,000 from Ouachita County annually.

Alderman Joe Askew spoke up then, saying that he had spoken to City Attorney Mike Frey and was informed that the $155,000 that is a part of the city budget is not earmarked for OPED. Ouachita County Judge Robbie McAdoo said that the agreement was that that the $155,000 would go to OPED. Silliman than pointed out that the OPED budget has dropped from $575,000 to $310,000. Smith interjected and asked for more details on the agreement and Golden said that it was an annual contract. Askew stated that the money that has been given to OPED also pays for salaries. McAdoo explained the break down of the $155,000 from the county: $105,000 goes to operating budget and $50,000 is set aside for business incentives, he said.

Smith then asked another submitted question which dealt with what business OPED has brought to Camden. Golden said that OPED was instrumental in bring Fastenal, Artesian Soaps, the Ouachita County Cath Lab that keeps residents from having to travel to Little Rock for heart procedures, Native Dog, CVR Industries, Aerocare Distribution Warehouse, the new Dollar Store on Cash Road as well as the one in Chidester, Camden Timbers, 4R Marketing and the Camden Marketplace shopping center at Atwoods. Golden emphasized that every cent spent by OPED is scrutinized because it's taxpayers' money and they want to use it wisely.

When Smith asked what it meant when Golden said OPED was instrumental, Silliman said OPED offers small business consultation and free business counseling once a week. Smith asked the audience how many people knew that OPED offered those services and around 20% of the attendees outside of elected officials raised their hands then said that he believed that maybe some of the reason why some people in Camden have trust issues with OPED is because they don't know exactly what all the partnership offers.

Smith next asked why OPED couldn't generate its own income and operate without government funding. Golden responded with his own question: "Where would it come from?"

Smith noted the question was submitted from a local resident. Silliman said he didn't know a model of any economic development entity that operates on its own.

Alderman Gerald Castleberry said he didn't know questions could be submitted and Askew stated that his questions were coming from his constituents in his ward and that none of the questions were personal. Gulley said the event was organized because a lot of residents in her ward had questions.

She said that she voted "no" to a funding request from OPED because there wasn't anyone from OPED at the city council meeting where the funding was considered and with her being new on the council, she wanted to ask questions before agreeing. She then said that since Castleberry had voted for giving OPED the funding then she figured he wouldn't have any questions. Castleberry explained that he has worked with OPED in the past and that was why he didn't have any questions.

When Golden and Silliman were asked what OPED does to support minority businesses, they agreed that they didn't discriminate and were open to help everyone. Golden described OPED as "colorblind" and said that everyone was in this together and that it was critical to have an office that the government can call for economic opportunities. He said that OPED will hear from anyone who has an idea and will do what they can to support them.

Smith stated that he can vouch to what Silliman said. Silliman then added that OPED received two business inquiries just over the last week but is unable to disclose much information because of confidentiality.

Askew echoed that he had no personal issues with anyone on OPED and that he was just representing his ward and that some of the residents don't think that OPED has done a great job. He then spoke about a Camden News article and said that it came across as a "dig" towards the council and made it seem like it was their fault Lockheed Martin wasn't getting paid incentives. Golden called the article "unfortunate" and said that one of the biggest problems in Camden is that it has issue coming together.

Golden then spoke about how it has been argued that OPED helping the area out in East Camden doesn't help Camden because it is in a different county. He said that he had sent an inquiry to all of the companies out in the area and that Aerojet was the only that had responded by the time of the meeting. Golden shared that 80 percent of Aerojet's employees have a 71701 zip code.

Golden added that a breakdown of OPED budget and their meetings were all public information. The group meets at 10 a.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month. During the event's closing, McAdoo said that he felt the meeting was long overdue. Smith also stayed a while to visit with the group outside of the meeting to offer some of his suggestions to help things moving forward.