Van Buren, Crawford County officials roll out economic development plan

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,432 views 

The city of Van Buren and the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce have unveiled an “Action Plan for Economic Development” that includes numerous “tactics” to grow jobs and improve quality of life in Van Buren and Crawford County.

Officials gathered Wednesday (March 16) morning in Van Buren to listen as Jim Fram, CEO of Community Growth Strategies, outlined details of the 23-page report. Fram, a certified economic developer with chamber and community development experience in Little Rock, Tulsa, Hot Springs and other cities, worked with city and county officials to develop the plan.

Julie Murray, Van Buren Chamber president and CEO, said work on the plan began in August 2021. She said key participants in the effort included Van Buren Mayor Joe Hurst, Maryl Purvis, director of the Van Buren Advertising & Promotion Commission, Crawford County Justice of the Peace Raymond Harvey, Sasha Grist, executive director of the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, and Steve Dufresne, director of the Van Buren Municipal Utilities.

Murray said with most of the goals met in a 2015 outline of action, community officials were ready to develop another plan.

“The question was asked, ‘What’s next?’ … We’ve got incredible momentum in this community, but we need to be ready, so a part of this (new plan) is that we need to be ready for what’s next. And we’ve got a lot coming right at us,” Murray said.

Following are just some of the action items – “tactics” – in the plan.
• An economic development partnership should be created and should negotiate an economic development agreement with the city of Van Buren. The partnership should develop a plan to raise private dollars to be used exclusively for economic development.

Julie Murray, Van Buren Chamber of Commerce president and CEO

• For prospect hosting and working with consultants, Arkansas Economic Development Commission project managers, and developers, designate an “Economic Development Point Person” to work with business prospects.

• Dedicate a portion of the existing city of Van Buren sales tax to fund economic development. “There is an existing sales tax of which economic development is a portion. This was approved by the voters and there are expectations of an investment in economic development,” the report noted.

• The city of Van Buren should appoint a 3- or 5-member economic development commission with the Mayor or a Council Member as one of the members to oversee distribution from the economic development fund.

• Conduct a branding and communications audit to develop a common image for Van Buren. “It is important that the City of Van Buren, the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Van Buren, Van Buren Public Schools, and the Advertising & Promotion Commission be involved in this process and appear to be representing the same community. This enhances your image to outsiders and spreads your limited advertising dollars and limited resources to a larger market,” according to the report.

• Continue the improvement and development of downtown Van Buren.

Fram told Talk Business & Politics that the action plan does have a lot in it, but said he is not concerned about how the community will respond.

“It is a busy report, but it’s all the things that we identified that the community needs to do to position itself for growth,” Fram said. “I interviewed more than 30 business and community leaders, and political leaders. And I can tell you they are all on the same team. They all want to go in the same direction. I really think they are going to surprise themselves and surprise a lot of other folks with what they are going to do.”

Murray said work now begins on “a path forward” to address items in the plan. Part of that is figuring out how much money will be needed from public and private sources, and a project timeline. She estimated within the next three months they would have “more solid information” on moving the plan forward.

She also admitted that the plan is aggressive, but said the “social capacity of this community is off the charts,” and the feedback she has received indicates people are ready to act.

“The people here this morning, they thought that Jim hit the nail on the head about the many things that we need to do,” Murray said. “The most impressive part of this has been the community engagement from the get-go. From people who wanted to have input, who wanted to be part of this, and now people wanting to know how they can get involved.”

Work to create the plan was funded by grants from Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative, Wave Rural Connect, Arvest Foundation, and the Walmart Foundation. Follow this link to find a PDF of the plan.