Sitting in a boardroom in the offices of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, overlooking the Arkansas River, Katherine Holmstrom makes the case for choosing Arkansas as your business home on a daily basis.
Even when talking about herself, Holmstrom shows how she has become one of the leading economic developers in the state with her passionate advocacy of the state’s opportunities. With self-deprecating humor and charming honesty, Holmstrom can discuss the benefits of investing in Arkansas while talking about herself and her rising career.
Since joining AEDC in 2011, Holmstrom has scaled the ranks, moving from the agency’s community development division to becoming a project manager and then senior project manager, working to recruit new businesses and helping to expand existing ones in Arkansas. These projects have resulted in millions of dollars invested in the state, as well as new infrastructure and new jobs.
It’s a career path that looks as planned and thought-out as any of the projects she has helmed during her time at AEDC. But she did not give any thought to economic development as a career path — not even being aware of the field when she was a child. “I don’t really think that anybody wants to grow up to be an economic developer,” Holmstrom jokes.
Growing up in DeWitt, Holmstrom had early experience with small business, working on her family’s agricultural aviation business when she was a teenager. Working at the family flying service provided an important lesson in the value, and necessity, of small businesses in Arkansas. “I think I really learned a lot about work and interaction with people, and got a really great work ethic from working with my grandpa and my dad, alongside my brother,” she said.
Holmstrom attended Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, receiving a journalism degree with an emphasis in public relations and a minor in agriculture business. It was her capstone project that set the course for her professional life, though. She began interning for Congressman Marion Berry on his 2006 reelection campaign, learning the ropes of campaign work. After college, she received a full-time offer from Berry, becoming a community development liaison and Berry’s woman-on-the-ground in Arkansas.
She began traveling across the First Congressional District on behalf of Berry, meeting with elected officials, chambers of commerce and constituents. Before she knew it, Holmstrom had been bitten by the public service bug.
When a community development role opened up at AEDC, Holmstrom grabbed the opportunity and ran with it, seeing it as an extension of her work with Berry’s office. She was later approached by AEDC Business Development Division Director Bentley Story to take on a project manager role.
“I have a unique perspective because I have worked on these projects. I understand that it takes an entire team to make a project happen. It takes the economic developer, it takes the chamber, and it takes a great community,” she said. “The importance of place-making is still very strong. Companies want to grow where they feel like they’re going to be valued, and they want to be part of a great community. I understand that all the pieces of the puzzle must exist to make a successful project happen.”
That’s where she’s been for going on 10 years, and her goal has remained fundamentally the same ever since. “Overall, my mission is to sell Arkansas as a great place to do business, provide quality jobs and provide quality opportunities for Arkansas,” she said.
Fulfilling that huge mission is not always a cakewalk, though Holmstrom handles the pressure gracefully. Every day is different in the challenges that economic development brings, which could mean working with an existing Arkansas company to come up with ways to expand its business, writing project proposals or recruiting out-of-state companies to Arkansas.
Of course, there’s always the unique — even bizarre — scenarios that pop up when trying to entice companies. That’s why Holmstrom’s number one tip for economic developers is to stay adaptable. Holmstrom has made dinner reservations for prospective clients and even once had to make dinner plans for a business client and his wife when the visit fell over Valentine’s Day weekend.
“You may wake up one day thinking that you are going to have all these meetings and then they want to go toward the downtown area or go tour the local school district. You just have to make that happen, and you have to be flexible,” she said. “It’s a lot of different things, but again, it never gets boring. It all involves making the business case for Arkansas, trying to make the prospect or the company comfortable and providing them all the tools that they need in order to make that decision to choose Arkansas.”
Holmstrom counts several projects from 2020 as some of the biggest successes in her career. She singles out an expansion for Roach Manufacturing Corporation in Caraway, which will be building a new 25,000-square-foot addition to its existing conveyor manufacturing plant and creating 30 new jobs over two years, tripling its workforce.
“Thirty jobs in Caraway is always a huge deal. And they’re good jobs. We see sometimes where people leave rural communities for better opportunities in bigger cities. These people have a great work ethic, and I think the Roach family saw that, and they wanted to invest there and continue to grow,” she said.
Another major project that Holmstrom helped shepherd was a new manufacturing facility in Ash Flat from Emerson, a St. Louis-based technology and engineering company. Emerson will be investing $35 million in the Ash Flat facility, which will manufacture products for its mechanical, electrical and plumbing divisions. The project is expected to create 245 new jobs over four years.
When Emerson was looking to establish an Arkansas presence, Ash Flat was not on its radar. However, Holmstrom and the AEDC team brought it to their attention and persisted, taking company representatives on a site visit, ultimately impressing the company enough for it to take the plunge in rural Sharp County.
Bentley Story, director of business development for AEDC, said Holmstrom has had a significant impact on the state and Arkansans. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with Katherine since 2011 when she started at AEDC,” he said. “Katherine is genuinely committed to improving the lives of Arkansans. Her work ethic, responsiveness and determination when working a project have led to the creation of thousands of jobs for our state. We are fortunate to have someone as dedicated as Katherine. Arkansas is definitely a better place because of her work.”
Holmstrom has found ways to expand that impact, working with the Arkansas Economic Developers and Chamber Executives (AEDCE) , an association that represents both professional and volunteer economic developers and chamber executives in the state. In 2020, she served as president of the organization, working to guide it through an unprecedented public health crisis.
While the annual AEDCE meeting was canceled, the organization worked to provide value for its members throughout the year. AEDCE increased its educational offerings, providing a slate of virtual seminars and other programming.
While 2020 was a challenging year all around, no matter your industry, Arkansas is ending on a “high note” for economic development, according to Holmstrom. She said the state has acquitted itself well in maintaining a competitive business climate by attending to industry and business needs and keeping open to the greatest extent possible.
“We tried to balance staying open and continuing business, but also taking care of people’s personal safety and trying to find the balance. I think we did that and think we did a really good job of that,” she said. “We’ve heard from existing employers that have thanked us for keeping open and how much that means to them and how it’s really helped, not only their bottom line, but it’s helped their employees as well.”
Looking ahead, the future continues to be cloudy, although new vaccines have provided bursts of sunlight at the end of a gloomy year. But for Holmstrom, 2021 is shaping up to be a banner year for Arkansas and business.
“We have a lot of great announcements in the pipeline for the start of 2021, and I’m excited about it,” she said. “I think it’s going to turn out pretty well. A lot of that is thanks to the work ethic of our state, of these employees who are willing to go to work and work hard and make these companies that are doing business here successful.”