Huntsville’s new economic development director says she wants to hear everyone’s voice as to the future of the city.
Brandi Holt, a native of Kingston, replaced Nancy Marsh, who retired Jan. 31.
“I’m not coming to make change. I’m coming in to help facilitate what the community wants,” Holt said last week. “Let’s talk about what we can support, what we want to attract.”
Hearing from a wide array of people is the key, she said.
“I love to talk about ideas. I love to hear people’s ideas,” she said.
“We need to incorporate everybody’s ideas. That’s one of our big hot-button words right now in northwest Arkansas is inclusion. How do you encourage diversity and foster inclusion in your area? That’s getting everyone to the table and talking. How can this community better serve everyone and in the future too?”
Holt grew up in Kingston where her grandparents had settled on a farm. Her mother’s job with the United States Department of Agriculture took Holt to locations “all over the state of Arkansas.”
Holt moved back to Madison County after finishing school at North Arkansas College in Harrison, then she moved to Clarksville where she played basketball and earned her bachelor’s degree in communication and history at the University of the Ozarks.
She has a master’s degree in communication and a doctorate in adult education from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Her area of focus in her doctoral studies was training and workforce development, “something that’s very much a focus of the northwest Arkansas region at the moment.”
Holt and her husband, Shannon Skyrme, have a son who will graduate from high school in May. He will attend Hendrix college in Conway next year. Shannon Skyrme is product manager for Oracle.
Holt worked for The Jones Trust and as advancement specialist for The Jones Center in Springdale from 2016 to 2018. From 2012 to 2016 she was manager of marketing and communication at the Fayetteville Public Library. Holt also served as president of the Kingston Friends of the Library group and saw the library move into its current facility.
Holt said she is proud of her work at the Fayetteville Public Library, which is doubling in size with current renovations.
“I got to share my love of libraries with the entire Fayetteville community and I really enjoyed it,” she said.
While there, she worked on strategic planning for the current expansion and worked on the millage campaign to fund the project.
The Huntsville economic development director is a part-time job at $15,000, so Holt was asked why she sought the job with her diverse background.
“Close to my heart is the community. I’ve always had a passion for Madison County thriving and growing,” she said. ‘This just seemed like a great opportunity to get involved in what is the nucleus of the county. I think this is a thriving community and I think it can continue to grow and develop.”
Holt and Skyrme will continue to split time between Fayetteville and the family farm in Kingston.
Holt and Marsh have worked together before. Holt was a grant coordinator and grant writer for the Madison County Health Coalition from 2009-2011. Marsh co-founded the organization.
Holt said she wants to continue Marsh’s work for the city.
“First of all is to continue the great work Nancy’s laid out,” she said of her goals.
“She stepped in and created a plan. She and I have talked briefly and I hope to get more indepth with her ... continuing what she’s got going,” with festivals and special events, and reaching out to prospective businesses that may move here.
One debate going around town is the future of the old Walmart Building on Lee Street. Retired architect Jonathan Formanek has proposed selling part of the building to the Huntsville School District for its Career and Technical Education program. The rest of the building would be used for a possible library, museum, community center and more.
“I think the debate over that is what has sparked growth and change in all of the cities in northwest Arkansas,” she said.
“All of them want to revitalize their downtown. I think Huntsville is no different in that we have a great bone structure to do that and anytime you have businesses that have gone out or leave a space, it does create that feeling of something left. But I also see those as opportunities that something new can come in. Hopefully we’ll be able to attract something into that space if the school’s unable to use it.”
The school district is going ahead with plans to construct a new CTE facility elsewhere in the city.
“Having that vision of ‘it’s an opportunity versus a challenge for us,’” she said of rehabbing abandoned buildings.
“What can we do there and what would we like to see there. Out of the debate ... it has at least sparked some of that ‘what do we want, what would be the best thing for the community to go in there.’”
Another challenge faced by the city and county is the 2020 U.S. Census, which will begin this spring.
“An accurate count helps the entire state, which receives that federal funding that’s then funneled to the economic development districts throughout the state and that’s how cities are receiving funding, and other entities do as well,” she said.
Holt said Huntsville and Madison County have to work to attract people and businesses to the area, especially those currently living and operating in Benton and Washington counties. Growth in this area is ready to happen.
“I think it’s inevitable. Madison County is part of the Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville metro statistical area and our area is on the cusp of being in the top 100,” she said. “When that happens that changes an entire area’s energy, because that’s where people start looking for entrepreneurial opportunities, moving businesses and things.
“That’s only going to help our area grow. We’re going to feel that as people move into the urban core of Rogers, Fayetteville, Springdale and housing continues to be an issue across our whole region.”
Holt added, “I’m hoping we see businesses wanting to move this way here as well.”
Holt’s job not only is to attract new residents and businesses, but to market Huntsville as a tourist destination, as well.
“One of the things that hasn’t changed is the rugged beauty of the county. I think it is our strength. I think it is one of the things we can really capitalize on,” she said.
Holt said she is impressed by the Huntsville School District and what it plans to do in the area of more educational opportunities for students in technical areas.
Still, Huntsville needs to attract jobs “that give our young people a place to work and attract them back.”
“We have a strong school system,” she said. “We can continue to grow that. From moving around the country that’s how I chose houses and I know that’s how my mom and I chose houses. Where’s the best schools? People move to where their children go to school. They drive to work. Huntsville is on a path to being a place where people want to live. I think we can continue to work together.”
Holt said a community needs a strong school in order to attract both people and businesses.
“I’m super excited about the new career and technical education center. ... Having kids get the opportunity to a variety of things and to see a variety of opportunities of what they could be.
“I think it is a very key component to showing prospective businesses that our community’s committed to education. I think that’s the most critical thing.”
Meeting a variety of people in her new job will be vital, she said.
“I’m looking forward to working with the education leaders and the business leaders and all the commissioners to talk about where do we want to go and what do we want to become that will attract those people and give them what they’re looking for in the idea of a community to be a part of,” she said.
Before anything can happen, Huntsville must have a vision of its future, she said.
“Having a vision of where you want to go really helps, not only to unite your leadership team but it brings your community together, too, because they’re a part of it. They need to be, they have to be for it to be a success,” Holt said.
Although much of Huntsville and Madison County have stayed the same over the years, there have been changes, she said.
“More diverse people from all over the country. I see that as one of our strengths,” she said about changes.
“One of the largest changes in my lifetime was the highway, 412. Old Highway 68 is what we traveled to Huntsville on. Huntsville is not a long ways from the metro area. The transportation has become much easier and helps with bringing people to our county,” she said.
Holt also said getting Highway 412 widened from Huntsville to northeast Arkansas is important.
“We need that. We need that as a town. It would help us tremendously being on that east-west corridor across the top of the state,” she said.
Holt said getting and strengthening relationships will benefit Huntsville and Madison County.
“That’s what I want to do is get out and talk with people,” she said.
Holt’s first meeting with the Economic Development and Tourism Commission will be on Feb. 12.