Tri-County Economic Development Commission; exploring growth

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Tri-County Economic Development Commission, which consists of members from the individual commissions in Sharp, Fulton and Izard Counties, held a meeting April 2 at Ozarka College in Melbourne.

A welcome was given by meeting host and Izard County Judge Eric Smith. Smith began by explaining the purpose of the Tri-County Economic Development Commission, which is to create a solid partnership between the three counties in order to be more enticing to incoming industries.

“What we’re doing here is Fulton, Sharp and Izard Counties are trying to group together to put our resources together in order to boost our economy,” Smith said. “Independence County is doing really well and we need to leach off that if possible. All of us have kids at home and we don’t want them to have to move away to work. That is our goal here.”

Crystal Johnson, President of the Batesville Chamber of Commerce was the speaker for the meeting.

Johnson began by presenting those in attendance with an agenda and the Independence County IMPACT Strategic Community Plan.

Johnson then commended the commissioners, stating the meeting was a big first step in the right direction in order to bring prosperity to the area.

“I think what you just said [about] taking a regional approach is very progressive. I have been with the chamber since 2009. The chamber board paid for me to get a masters in community development from UCA and for the first five years, we worked to build the chamber nest egg back up,” Johnson said. “Our organization wasn’t in great shape. We started working on a program at the board level and then we were ready to do more.”

Once the chamber itself had become more stable, Johnson and the board then began to reach out to members of their community to see what the vision was and what the chamber could do to assist.

“There wasn’t a plan in place for community development so we started there. To get a plan together we embarked on a strategic planning process and did it all in house. It was a lot of work, but part of the reason we were successful is because we engaged the community. We looked at the why,” Johnson said. “Our population was kind of stagnant and that was concerning. We needed a way to bring all the projects happening in the community and put them in one spot. [Those were] our two goals; to get organized and address our population.”

As part of the process to create the strategic plan, Johnson said the chamber did some research and then looked to the people for input.

“The vibe in the community was our people were sick of being told what to do. A lot of decisions had been made behind closed doors by the same group of people that had been doing things for so long. We started with a survey and bench-marked other communities and cities who had done a similar process and copied pretty much everything they did. We took their questionnaires and we duplicated everything that worked,” Johnson said. “We released the surveys, had committees that over saw them. We put out kiosks and put them at the gas stations, retail locations, every school, we took them to the games. We saturated the market with these surveys so everyone that wanted to give input has the opportunity to do that.”

The response and results from the survey were staggering. Johnson said the chamber’s expectation was to receive 500 returned surveys, but ended up with over 1,500 before the deadline.

Johnson said it was encouraging to see the interest from the public but also to know the community wanted to see positive change.

After receiving the surveys, more committees were formed and the four main areas of interest were identified.

Healthy living, education, economic prosperity and tourism were the most listed areas of interest according to the survey.

After identifying the main areas of interest, Johnson said public meetings were held and in order to make sure everyone was accommodated they took place at all hours of the day and night so that those who worked second and third shift could attend. Johnson explained community engagement and involvement was very important to the success of the project.

“Our committees started analyzing, putting goals and objectives for each area. We did that for six months. We ended up with 186 different goals and objectives the community wanted to see that they could be proud of,” Johnson said. “The chamber was in a good place to do this and we wanted it to be non-political so we partnered with the colleges.”

Johnson then referred to the strategic plan itself. The strategic plan hopes to achieve the goals between 2016 and 2020, but Johnson said this could not be possible without increased partnerships.

“When it came to implementation, chamber staff couldn’t do it. A lot of the areas we didn’t have authority to work like in education, so we went to every board, city council, quorum court, school board and it was easy because their people had [already] participated. We laid the foundation and then started looking at it to see, who cared about what issues,” Johnson said.

Once interested parties who had a stake in the game were identified, they were recruited to help lead the charge in improving the areas.

“We are implementing the plan and I want to give an example of one thing that’s happened I think you could be successful with. Workforce is a huge topic for us. Keeping our kids here when they graduate. Workforce is hard. Developing your workforce is hard. The obvious answer for us was through education so if we can create a pathway to start in elementary. [Asking the questions] Where do you see yourself? Where do you want to be? And let them dream. Sometimes they want to be a cowboy but by third grade they want to be a scientist,” Johnson said. “We’re working on developing pathways for our students in Independence County. Peco is a good example. It’s robotics, clean tech and some jobs start out at $45,000. It’s an education for our kids, parents, workforce and employers. We’ve made them think; if you want to recruit our students we’ll make that opportunity but you have to want them.”

As a result, the chamber began a project called Independence Promise which allows high school students to take advantage of scholarships prior to graduating high school.

“That’s an example of what has come out of our strategic plan. Enough to keep the excitement going because it’s easy to have a plan but not work it,” Johnson said. “I think a regional plan would be very successful.”

Johnson then went on to hit the highlights and success points of the strategic plan before entering into a question and answer session with the commissioners.

Judge Smith spoke regarding the issues he has been able to identify in Izard County which include lodging.

“One struggle for Izard County is our lodging. We have a bed and breakfast and a motel but when we have a golf tournament or basketball tournament, the people stay in Batesville. I think it would be nice if we did have more lodging, some name brand,” Smith said as he inquired about advertising and promotional taxes.

Izard County Commissioner Matt Rush then asked Johnson what advice she would give for the Tri-County Commission’s big picture vision.

“I think the trend across the state and beyond is regional economic development. On your own,you’re not as attractive. If you can be unified you can use the regions population and resource. We’ve not been successful with annexation. We have 10,500 residents and that’s not enough to do what we want to do but when we say we represent Independence County and we represent 40,000 people, that is more attractive,” Johnson said.

The commissioners then began to identify and discuss issues in their individual counties and then issues they saw from a regional perspective.

They then neared the end of the meeting, in agreement that a regional plan would be the most beneficial. Many commissioners also requested copies of the survey Johnson and her chamber sent out to their community.

Just prior to adjourning, Johnson provided the commissioners with a list of resources and contacts to begin their own process in a similar fashion to the chamber.

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