State Representative Lori Benedict's invite to hear a parade of government bureaucrats talk about their agencies sounded like a long, dull evening.
But the speakers were talking about grants and loans, training programs and other assistance they offer to local government agencies, citizen organizations, developers and start-up businesses.
So, on Tuesday, Oct. 11, the Miller-Hickenbotham building at the Fulton County Fairgrounds was full of people anxious to learn what help was available.
"I learned about a couple of grants the fire department could go for, that I wasn't aware of," said Salem Fire Chief Nick Blanton, the day after the Rural Development Workshop. "I downloaded a form today and have already applied for a $2,500 grant. Unlike most grants, it was just three pages and easy to complete."
"This workshop is designed to provide information and connections to state agencies that work to enhance the quality of life in rural Arkansas," Benedict explained as the workshop began.
The Arkansas Department of Rural Services was among agencies present. It offers matching grants for a variety of community improvement projects, fairgrounds upgrades and wildlife and outdoor recreation improvements.
The Forestry Commission has money to help volunteer fire departments, and offers programs to train firefighters to respond to forest fires and wildfires.
Resource Conservation and Development has funding for farmer's market facilities, skate parks and other rural community developments, as well as grant money for fire departments and a service to send notices to help collect fire department dues.
"We don't provide money. We offer products for pennies on the dollar," James Ray, of the Federal Surplus division of Arkansas Emergency Services, explained.
Ray stirred a lot of interest when he showed photos of the state's huge warehouse, which is full of surplus vehicles, heavy equipment, trailers, emergency generators, furniture and even knives.
"If you've ever had a pocket knife seized at the airport, we probably wound up with it," Ray laughed.
Ray also showed a photo of an expensive FEMA travel trailer, which was obtained for $2,500.
Under the program, approved agencies and groups can apply for the federal surplus items. They pay a service fee, three to five percent of the government purchase price, for items donated to them.
The Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Parks and Tourism, White River Planning and Development and USDA Rural Development were also workshop participants.
After the meeting, members of the audience were able to collect written information about the various programs, and, most importantly, talk one on one to the agency representatives about their specific needs.
Bob Schoeneweis, of the Gentryville Water Association, came to the meeting hoping to get help in obtaining some emergency generators, to keep water flowing during the next ice storm or power outage.
"I learned quite a bit tonight," said Schoeneweis. "I got some good information on where the money is and how to try to get it."
Gentryville Water, located between Ash Flat and Evening Shade, can use all the help it can get, since it has only 180 customers.
Kathy Timlin, a member of the Hosanna Heights Water Association outside Mammoth Spring, was also in search of a backup generator, and some financial help for a project that has put the association in a bind.
"We only have 32 hookups and, in February, we had to put four holding tanks in to meet state standards," Timlin said. "We couldn't afford that but, here at the meeting, I got a phone number to seek some grants or loans."
Ray indicated to both water associations they may be able to obtain the generators they need through the federal surplus program, and he provided information on what they need to do to be approved to participate.
"I've already gotten some good feedback," Rep. Benedict said as people lingered after the meeting. "It was a long meeting, but it appears everyone is happy they came."