Division of Agriculture program works to spur economic development in rural communities

Giving rural communities in Arkansas a helpful hand toward improving their economic future is a key goal of a collaborative effort involving the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

The effort, called Stronger Economies Together, included recent planning sessions in northeast and southeast Arkansas with community leaders and rural developers providing input to formulate their own agendas by emphasizing attainable goals.

“These rural areas have many economic challenges,” said Stacey McCullough, head of Community and Economic Development for the Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. “Our rural counties are losing population. In some cases, they lack the amenities that makes people want to stay there. Together, we are figuring out to help these regions thrive.”

McCullough said the Stronger Economies Together program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, aims to help local leaders realize that no one from the outside “is going to come and save” them. With that understanding, local leaders next must focus their thinking on how they can plan their region’s economic future, leverage the assets they do have, and make their own positive improvements on the regional level.

The program helps facilitate meetings among local leaders throughout the region, and provides coaching, helping them come together to agree on regional goals. Next, they carefully craft and implement action plans to reach those goals.

The two regions participating in the process are the 10 counties included in the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District and six counties that have voluntarily joined together to form the Northeast Arkansas Economic Development Coalition. Leaders involved include local economic developers, elected officials, business leaders, and engaged citizens.

The Southeast area is comprised of Arkansas, Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, Cleveland, Desha, Drew, Grant, Jefferson and Lincoln counties. The Northeast area comprises Clay, Craighead, Greene, Lawrence, Poinsett and Randolph counties.

“Each region had to identify one to three industry clusters they want to focus on,” McCullough said. “They also identified foundational issues that impact quality of life and the regional economy. For instance, broadband access is a major issue in both regions. Is there something the counties can do together to make sure their regions have the broadband they need? That’s something they hope to address.”

In the Northeast, the leaders agreed to focus on workforce, broadband, agriculture and tourism.

“Jonesboro is the center but peripheral counties are necessary,” McCullough said. “Without those areas, Jonesboro wouldn’t be as successful, and vice versa. The idea is to get those areas working together, getting them to see more than ‘my city, my county’ and instead ask ‘what are things we can do together to strengthen our overall economy?’”

The Southeast meetings resulted in an initial focus of workforce development. The area isn’t as uniform as others, with half of the 10 counties traditionally focusing on row crops, and the other half on timber and livestock. The program is helping the counties find common ground, McCullough said.

“Both regions have strong, passionate people who care about the place they call home, and want to make it better,” McCullough said. “In our work with communities and regions, that’s the key ingredient for success.”

For more information, see http://www.uaex.edu/SET.