University program aimed at strengthening rural economies

Given that retail, tourism and entertainment provide jobs and business opportunities that often drive rural economies, Oklahoma State University is piloting Create Bridges, a program designed to strengthen those industries in rural Oklahoma.

With funding from Walmart, University of Kentucky agricultural economics Associate Professor Alison Davis, in partnership with the Southern Rural Development Center, developed the program.

Researchers at Kentucky along with collaborative partners at the University of Arkansas and OSU will develop, refine and pilot a process to help rural communities build their capacity for strengthening the retail and hospitality sectors.

Retail is an important sector that serves local needs as well as being an entry point to the workforce system for new workers. Retail businesses often find it difficult to keep workers for extended periods, which leaves them with a shortage of shift leaders, floor supervisors and managers.

Create Bridges will look at workforce solutions to retain workers and promote from within.

“Retail and hospitality industries are important components of our rural communities. They provide critical tax revenue for city services, accessible and flexible jobs for many community residents, and help create a sense of place for our rural towns,” said Dave Shideler, OSU Cooperative Extension community development specialist. “This project is not just about workforce, but we’re also focusing on the needs and issues facing the businesses themselves.”

Create Bridges builds upon the Stronger Economies Together initiative, a collaborative effort across 32 states led by the SRDC that helps rural counties work together to develop and implement an economic development plan for their multi-county region.

This summer, regions comprising two to five predominantly rural counties can apply to participate in the two-year program. Regions that apply should have some type of retail hub that pulls workers from outside areas. One selected region will have access to new or adapted workforce programs, financial incentives for employee and employer participation and funding to support small seed projects.

To access an application for Create Bridges, visit, click “State Applications + Data and Resources” and choose “Oklahoma State Application.”

OSU and its state partners will facilitate a retail academy for regional leaders and a business retention and expansion program. They will coordinate with regional workforce investment boards to identify opportunities for workforce training focused on incumbent and new workers.

There are funds available for such things as daycare, transportation and food, so people will not be inconvenienced and will be able to participate. There are also funds for businesses to try to identify an innovative solution to provide better opportunities for their workers.

“Through this project, we want to create innovative solutions to rural workforce and economic development issues, whether those solutions address transportation, so people can get to work, or marketing and productivity to increase business revenues,” Shideler said.