Stronger Economies Together (SET), an initiative between several counties and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, is hoping to address the urban-rural economic divide in Arkansas.
Part of the SET work has included planning sessions in northeast and southeast Arkansas during which community leaders and rural developers provided input to formulate agendas by emphasizing attainable goals.
“These rural areas have many economic challenges,” said Division of Community and Economic Development head Stacey McCullough. “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 SET program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, aims to help leaders focus their thinking on how they can plan their region’s economic future, leverage the assets they have, and make their own positive improvements on the regional level, McCullough said. The program also helps facilitate meetings among regional leaders, and provides coaching, helping them come together to agree on regional goals, according to the division.
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 citizens.
The Southeast area is comprised of Arkansas, Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, Cleveland, Desha, Drew, Grant, Jefferson and Lincoln counties. The Northeast area is comprised of 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 Arkansas area, 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 on 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.”