Rural economic development program focused on tourism, retail enters second phase

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 275 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)

A pilot program focused on economic development in six rural Arkansas counties has moved on to its second phase, interviewing business owners involved in retail, entertainment, accommodations and tourism.

Create Bridges is a multi-state pilot to help communities strengthen the retail, tourism, hospitality, and entertainment sectors, which provide jobs and business opportunities that frequently boost rural economies. In Arkansas, the efforts are organized by the extension’s Community and Economic Development section, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Create Bridges was established in October 2018 in the 3Cs Region of Howard, Little River and Sevier counties, and the Ozark Foothills Region of Fulton, Izard, and Sharp counties.

Earlier this year, Create Bridges held a series of forums in several counties throughout the state to gather information about community assets in the retail, tourism, entertainment and accommodations industries.

Julianne Dunn, economic development instructor for the Division of Agriculture, encouraged area business owners to participate in the program. Business owners in these sectors in these areas were interviewed. Results of these confidential interviews will be used to develop regional economic development strategies that will be implemented next year.

“Connecting with our existing businesses demonstrates the importance of these businesses to our communities and allows us to create long-term, achievable plans that will help grow our rural economies,” Dunn said.

Retaining and expanding businesses involves connecting with a community’s existing businesses through individual interviews or small group roundtables to understand and respond to their needs. The interviews focus on workforce, community engagement, customer base, and potential expansion plans.

Create Bridges — which is actually an acronym for “Celebrating Retail, Accommodations, Tourism, and Entertainment by Building Rural Innovations and Developing Growth Economies” — has already held community forums and a retail academy for regional leaders.

Next steps include an employee engagement survey and an emphasis on identifying opportunities for workforce training for the incumbent workforce.

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