Grant Tennille had never expected to find himself leading the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, just as he had never imagined seven months earlier that he would be mourning the sudden loss of his predecessor, Maria Haley.

Grant Tennille had never expected to find himself leading the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, just as he had never imagined seven months earlier that he would be mourning the sudden loss of his predecessor, Maria Haley.

The job of executive director traditionally has been about attracting industry to Arkansas, often by stealing it from other states or at least by beating them to the punch. It’s been led by some well-established big shots, including Winthrop Rockefeller and Frank White, both of whom later became governors.

Haley was a big shot, too. She came to AEDC after working as a senior director at Kissinger McLarty Associates — the Kissinger being Henry and the McLarty being Mack, who had been President Clinton’s chief of staff. She previously had worked in the White House for Clinton and was on the board of the Export Import Bank.

Tennille, 43, married with three kids, was more of an up-and-comer. His last job was serving as Gov. Beebe’s deputy chief of staff, where he was the liaison to the AEDC. He and Haley, 70, worked closely together professionally and were close friends.

Last September, she died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. She became sick on a Friday, and by the time Tuesday arrived her death was not unexpected.

People always say nice things about public officials when they die, but this was devastating. Haley was beloved at AEDC, and she was making a difference. There was a hole. Someone had to fill it.

“I called the governor on Sunday night and said, ‘Somebody’s got to go down and talk to those folks,’” Tennille said. “And he said, ‘It’s going to be you.’”

So Tennille pulled the AEDC staff together. When he reported back to the governor, Beebe told him to stay there for a few days and keep people focused. Days turned into weeks until Beebe named him his interim director.

Economic development depends on relationships with business leaders, and as the months passed Tennille was developing them. He was negotiating projects, which can be a delicate process where people don’t like to change horses midstream. The end of Beebe’s term drew nearer, which meant it was getting harder to find someone willing to be a short-termer.

Tennille also is really likable and sincere. Folks at AEDC told the governor he ought to give him the job permanently.

Because of all of those reasons, he did.

Haley was in the process of modernizing the AEDC – to stop chasing after the world’s disappearing 1,000-job plants that pay $13 an hour for relatively low-skilled work and instead to attract or bolster those where 50-100 people make very good money to control and maintain robots.

Tennille thinks the timing may be right for that plan to succeed. Wages are rising in China, which means some American companies will be returning to our shores to build things. At the same time, Chinese manufacturers are looking to open factories here to better access our markets.

He says Arkansas has advantages over other states. It has good roads, lots of railroads, and rivers running along its eastern border and through the center of the state. You can make things in Arkansas, load them on a barge, and sell them to the growing economies of Central and South America.

And while other states have been running budget deficits and cutting education spending, Arkansas has been balancing its budget and spending more on schools. That’s a selling point for companies that like stability.

So Tennille has three years to implement this plan, and then we’ll have a new governor who may or may not want to hire a new executive director.

Until then, he has a job to do, even though he never expected to have it.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com