CREATE BRIDGES initiative moves forward

Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Pictured here are those in attendance for the CREATE BRIDGES kickoff, held Jan. 31 at Ozarka College in Ash Flat, brainstorming together.
Lauren Siebert

Approximately 100 members of the community gathered at Ozarka College during the course of two meetings Jan. 31 to participate in the CREATE BRIDGES initiative.

CREATE BRIDGES, an acronym for Celebrating Retail, Accommodations, Tourism and Entertainment by Building Rural Innovations and Developing Growth Economies, is a pilot program being executed in six regions, two in each of the following states, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arkansas.

The first meeting took place in the morning hours and was opened by Julianne Dunn, with the U of A System Division of Agriculture. Dunn is also a project leader for the CREATE BRIDGES initiative.

“We’re going to get together and talk about what regional strengths and opportunities we have and then talk about what the next steps are,” Dunn said.

Following additional greetings from Dr. Stacey McCoullough and Ed Mabey, partner leaders in the initiative, Dunn gave recognition to Graycen Bigger, a key individual in helping to ensure Sharp, Izard and Fulton Counties were selected as one of the six regions for the program.

“The idea is that these industries are undeserved and paying attention to them will help us to build those economies,” Dunn said as she began to explain the idea behind the program. She then began to lay out the plans for the next three years. “The first year is programattic, second year is strategies and regional steering committee will come up with how to implement them and the third year is the implementation or further planning.”

The purpose of the meeting was to raise awareness, determine challenges/ barriers and identify opportunities as well as to being the process to develop and implement strategies.

“An ideal number of participants with shared resources and partnerships can increase the likelihood of economic development progress,” Dunn said. “The spectrum of impact is much larger than the town it originates in. Something that happens in Ash Flat, doesn’t just effect Ash Flat, it effects the whole region.”

Dunn explained that in order to get to the point at which the meeting could be held, a regional steering committee had to be formed, an initial asset map created and more.

“Graycen formed the regional steering committee,” Dunn said. “We’ve accomplished quite a bit and this information will be combined with information to be held at the retail academy.”

She briefly explained the pilot program was unique in that it focused initial on four primary sectors: tourism, lodging, business and entertainment.

“These sectors aren’t always considered when making decisions, but we want to work on that. The retail academy is a very data driven event. We will have a business retention and expansion program, workforce development and employee engagement,” Dunn said. “It boils down to what keeps you here and how to help you expand to keep you here. We also want to make a pointed effort to engage the employees themselves and that can be challenging because you may not always be able to find them outside of the workspace. We’re looking for ways to make them feel safe.”

Following her introduction to the purpose of the meeting and program plans, those in attendance were given the opportunity to view and add to the four lists which had been started by the regional steering committee.

A second exercise was also conducted in which those in attendance were split into groups of 10 or less and given the opportunity to discuss and brainstorm.

The first in the list of items to brainstorm was to identify the strengths of the area. Examples included affordable living, natural beauty, room for growth and more.

The second task was for the groups to identify what they perceived to be obstacles or challenges the region faces. Examples included poverty rates, lack of infrastructure and others that could prevent growth.

The third task was for the groups to identify opportunities which could or should be pursued; could being defined as long term concepts and should being identified as opportunities which should be taken advantage of in the near future. Some examples included investing in youth, seeking to bring larger events to the area, creating a regional calendar, compounding area events and more.

Each group was given the opportunity to share their top three selections in the order of importance for each section. The lists and data were then collected by Dunn and her team in order to see what other items were identified by the groups.

The data collected will be used to help the regional steering committee to determine what is important to the community at large. Sharp, Fulton and Izard Counties were each represented at the meeting through various members of the community who were present.

Dunn said there would be additional meetings held in the near future, but encouraged those in attendance to continue to brainstorm and to reach out to members of the regional steering committee if they would like to become more involved in the process.

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