Arkansas Planning and Development Districts

aka: Arkansas Economic Development Districts

Planning and Development Districts are not well recognized but are very important in the economic planning and development process at the local level. Each planning district covers six to twelve Arkansas counties which are bound together by common economic problems and opportunities. In addition to assessing the potential for economic development for the area, the district is the means by which the counties interact with economic development offices of the state and federal governments.

The planning effort in Arkansas has had several beginnings. In the 1930s, under the auspices of the federal government, the Arkansas Plan was published. For its day, it was a comprehensive economic plan covering resources available, economic development needs, land use, and directions for economic development. In the 1950s, after World War II, renewed interest in a state plan resulted in a formal planning department established to make an inventory of the state’s assets. A detailed list was compiled, and a preliminary plan was drafted and released to the public prior to 1960. It was financed by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. Once again, this was a comprehensive economic plan covering all aspects of economic development

In the 1960s, when Winthrop Rockefeller was governor, the state was divided into eight economic regions. (Rockefeller wanted twelve, but it was too costly to administer that number.) Congress passed the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 (PL 89-136), establishing the Economic Development Administration as the federal government’s major economic development agency. The law provided for planning grants for the states, with the amount of funding based upon population.

From January 1967 through 1968, Rockefeller completed negotiations with the Economic Development Administration to designate the eight Arkansas Planning and Development Districts as multi-county regional economic organizations. Rockefeller and the Arkansas General Assembly expanded this concept in 1969, with Act 118 designating the Economic Development Districts as the state’s official multi-county planning and development organizations. Act 118 and PL 89-136 designated the districts to be “multi-purpose, multi-funded, multi-county planning and development organizations, with control vested at the grass-roots level in the decision-making process.” This is accomplished by the board of directors for each district, composed of at least fifty-one percent locally elected officials, including mayors and county judges. The boards are self-selecting and self-perpetuating but include the county judges of the counties in the district. City mayors are included to constitute the fifty-one percent. Public members may be chosen because of contributions to economic development or special expertise in the field.

Each district is required to complete an Overall Economic Development Program (OEDP) with annual updates. In this process, the district’s residents focus on bottlenecks to their progress and unused potential for development. The updates are available to interested parties but are distributed to the entities which make up the board of directors, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC), and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA). The updates contain the most recent economic statistical data and evaluation of the progress being made in the program.

After establishing the districts, Rockefeller recognized the boundaries of the eight districts for HUD-701 Non-Metropolitan Planning purposes. Many other government agencies began to use the districts to conduct their own planning and development activities. These agencies might be local, such as Metroplan in central Arkansas. Other agencies—such as education, agriculture, highway, and waterway planners—also looked to the districts.

In years to follow, the districts were instrumental in establishing, or became the first to operate, many programs which directed or included rural development as a major objective. These programs include Resource Conservation Districts, Comprehensive Health Planning, area agencies on aging, criminal justice planning, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), the Jobs Training and Partnership Act (JTPA), transportation planning, Farmers Home Administration Section 11 Planning Programs, the Federal Excess Personal Property program (FEPP), the Areawide Housing Program, and the Solid Waste Management Program. This list is added to the implementation of programs under the Ozarks Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration.

The districts have been the major conduit for funds of development programs in Arkansas. The largest grant program being administered by the districts is the Workforce Investment Board for funding job development throughout Arkansas.

These districts continue to serve as the headquarters for development planning and for federal and state economic programs. Each district was enabled to hire staff members to develop the plan and, later, to supervise Economic Development Administration programs. That agency exercised supervision by providing an economic development representative for the state. Various attempts to measure the economic impact of the activities have produced inconclusive results. The difficulty is that some funding comes from legislation that is not clearly identified as economic development funds, and some funds come from private sources. The same is true of measurements of the development results since some occurs in the market economy, which is not a direct result of the economic development plan.

For additional information:
Arkansas Economic Development Commission. (accessed July 11, 2023).

Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. (accessed July 11, 2023).

Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. (accessed July 11, 2023).

Barton A. Westerlund and Roger K. Chisholm
Little Rock, Arkansas


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