Sharp, Fulton and Izard counties receive ‘Create Bridges’ grant

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,475 views 

The largest natural spring in Arkansas fuels the Spring River. It starts at Mammoth Spring State Park and ends in the Black River about 57 miles away. (photo courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)

Three counties in the Arkansas Ozark Foothills region of Sharp, Fulton and Izard Counties have been selected for a multi-state pilot program designed to build up rural economies, Spring River Innovation Hub Director Graycen Bigger told Talk Business & Politics. Sharp, Fulton, and Izard counties will be recipients of the The Create Bridges grant.

The project will be conducted through University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Community and Economic Development. The local area is one of two multi-county regions in the state selected for participation in the technical assistance grant. Create Bridges was recently launched in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arkansas with the help of a $2.7 million grant from Walmart to the Southern Rural Development Center.

“There is no single model for economic development success,” Bigger said. “Thriving communities are those willing to be creative, utilize their unique strengths and share resources. Our area is dependent upon small business, tourism, hospitality and education sectors. The innovation hub, which seeks to promote creative, strategic partnerships within Sharp, Fulton and Izard Counties, is proud to lead this planning process that will support our strongest industries and result in future economic growth. We look forward to strengthening ties with neighboring communities and enacting economic initiatives with our partners to advance the area.”

As part of this innovative initiative, the University of Arkansas, the University of Kentucky, and Oklahoma State University will collaborate to develop, refine and pilot a process to help rural communities build their capacity for strengthening the retail, tourism, hospitality, and entertainment sectors, which provide jobs and business opportunities that frequently boost rural economies.

The local area was chosen for its interest in growing the tourism and retail industries as well as a demonstrated commitment to Create Bridges businesses, Bigger said. The area is well-known for its annual Cave City Watermelon Festival and the region is currently in the planning process for additional multi-city tourism events and festivals in 2019.

The area also boasts a strong tourism economy around its natural resources including lakes and rivers like Spring River, she said. Ozarka College’s culinary program and the newly opened Spring River Innovation Hub are key resources for the region. The steering committee for the Hub is comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders, ranging from city mayors to local business owners.

Julianne Dunn, Instructor-Economic Development, will work with state partners to build a retail academy for regional leaders and a business retention and expansion program, she said. They also will coordinate with regional workforce investment boards to identify opportunities for workforce training focused on incumbent and new workers. The program also will look at workforce solutions to retain workers and promote from within.

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