Non-profit group hopes to launch innovation hubs in northeast Arkansas and southern Missouri

by George Jared ([email protected]) 585 views 

Doniphan Vitality, a non-profit organization, has received a $100,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, DRA, to conduct an innovation hub feasibility study in four southern Missouri counties and Sharp and Randolph counties in Arkansas.

The University of Missouri Extension Office has also pledged a $20,000 match, DV Arkansas leadership point person Graycen Bigger told Talk Business & Politics.

“We need to bring creative people into the fold … we need to develop our businesses and provide assistance to entrepreneurs,” Bigger said. “Creative place making is a necessary tool.”

Project leaders hope to have the study completed by the end of the year, but the grant has a two year window. The idea is to build an innovation hub or hubs in towns like Hardy and Pocahontas similar to the Arkansas Innovation Hub in North Little Rock. The hubs would have work spaces for craftsman such as wood working, painting, advanced manufacturing, and others. The hubs could also provide shared office space and equipment, professional training, and development.

Another arm of the economic development concept is the marketing and distribution of products produced by artisans in the Ozark Mountain region. Bigger wants to help artisans push their wares through brick and mortar retail stores and develop regional distribution routes. Online sales will also be emphasized, she said.

The first step is to create a network of artisans, business leaders, entrepreneurs and others who might benefit from these hubs, she said. The University of Missouri and Southeast Missouri State University have agreed to provide the statistical research for the study. Buildings to place these hubs must also be identified, she said. Hardy and Pocahontas are the likely landing spots for the initial hubs in Arkansas, if funding can be attained. The former Brown shoe factory near the Black River in Pocahontas has been identified as a possible location.

One of the reasons DRA agreed to fund the study was because it involved multiple states, Bigger said. The counties selected have some of the lowest per capita income levels in the country, and need to find ways to expand their economic prospects, she said.

Sharp County has a median household income of $30,691 nearly 45% below the national median household level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The county has an estimated 17,264 residents, and 23.6% of them live below the poverty level. The county has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 5.6%. It has a labor force of about 6,000 and an estimated 338 workers are classified in the county as unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Randolph County has a slightly higher median household income level at $34,044. The county has a population of about 17,469, and 17.6% of its residents live at or below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The county has an unemployment rate of 4.9% It has a labor force of 6,478 workers. An estimated 315 residents are classified as unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The area’s economic poverty will be one of the primary obstacles to forming a hub or hubs, Bigger said. The benefits could have a dramatic impact on the region’s economy, however.

Creative place making allows communities to renovate old, unused buildings; it helps to create construction, local business and other jobs; it also brings business professionals and artisans into a similar space which can be mutually lucrative, Bigger said. It also raises cultural awareness and improves a community’s livability, a significant factor for industries seeking to locate elsewhere, she said.

Part of the feasibility study will focus on the demand and potential market for Ozark artisan products. It will also have to decipher what resources are locally available, and what funding sources are available.

Bigger, an Arkansas State University graduate, received her master’s degree from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York City, is an instructor at ASU and works for the Paragould School District. Bigger often reminds her students that art-related wares are a $68 billion annual business. She resides in Pocahontas and has ideas on how her hometown could improve its economic and cultural climate.

Randolph County has five navigable rivers, and could become a much more significant tourist destination, she said. There needs to be more outfitters along the rivers to cater to fishermen, canoe enthusiasts, and others who want to enjoy the outdoors. If the hub were located next to a river, it might house an outfitter, she said. The concept will probably take years to develop, but Bigger said she is committed to the task. She is networking in those counties, and will reach out to others, including Newport and Helena. Bigger said she might even extend into Mississippi if the project is successful.

Workshops will be held March 21 at the Black River Technical College continuing education building, April 6 at the Hardy City Hall, and another held May 6 during the Pocahontas Founder’s Day Festival. Anyone with inquires can contact Bigger at (870) 335-7409 or at [email protected]

“I think this could really be helpful and we need to support efforts like this … it has the potential to create a lot of jobs and successful businesses,” she said.