Northwest Arkansas faces challenges along with growth, state Senate candidates say

FAYETTEVILLE — Growth presents challenges for Northwest Arkansas, particularly in building needed infrastructure quickly enough keep up with rapid expansion, candidates from two races for state Senate said at forums Friday afternoon.

The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce hosted back-to-back primary candidate forums for the District 31 and 35 state Senate races. Both districts have three-candidate Republican primaries on May 24. All but one of the candidates in those races attended Friday’s forum at the Fayetteville Public Library.

Pastor Andrew Thompson of the First United Methodist Church of Springdale and former Tontitown Mayor Paul Colvin attended the 2 p.m. forum for Republican candidates in District 31. Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, was absent. The winner in that race will face Democratic nominee Lisa Parks in the Nov. 8 general election.

Businessmen Tyler Dees of Siloam Springs and Jeff Tennant of Lincoln joined Rep. Gayla McKenzie of Gravette, who also owns a business, in the 3 p.m. forum for District 35 candidates. The winner of that primary will face Libertarian candidate Doug Peterson in the fall. Neither of the two districts has a senator running for reelection there.

Rural areas of Northwest Arkansas can already see growth from the central, more urban portion spreading, all the candidates speaking Friday said. They need infrastructure ranging from high-speed internet and new schools to roads and drainage projects to handle what is coming, they said. They need lawmakers who will keep sight of those needs and address them.

“Rural residents need to have a voice in how to handle this growth and how to pay for it, not to be told to bless a plan after it’s decided,” McKenzie said.

All the candidates also mentioned the difficulty of getting and keeping a state license in a wide variety of fields as a serious bottleneck in economic growth, particularly for people who want to start a new business. “You have to have a license to groom dog hair,” Colvin said. Dees said Tahlequah, Okla., near the state line has five companies providing home health care to residents there while similarly sized Siloam Springs has yet to attract one because of licensing obstacles.

Where the candidates differed was on who was best qualified to meet those challenges. Thompson said his experience as a pastor and congregation leader would help him build coalitions in the Legislature. Colvin said his practical experience as mayor for seven years made him qualified. Dees cited his business skills and faith-based approach to public service. Tennant said he brought both a wide range of business experiences and a thorough knowledge of the region and its needs. McKenzie cited her time in the Legislature and claimed a proven record of not backing down from hard issues and of being very open and accessible to constituents.

State law requires a runoff if no candidate gains a clear majority — 50% plus 1 or more — in the primary. This is to ensure no candidate advances to the general election with only a plurality of the primary vote. The runoff, if needed, will be June 21 between the two candidates who receive the most primary votes.

Senators normally serve four-year terms and receive a base salary of $44,357.

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