MANILA – Empty main streets, rundown buildings and abandoned businesses are sights many rural Arkansas citizens know all too well, officials said. With younger generations gravitating toward bigger cities, many rural towns just don’t see the revenues they used to.

“These are the factors that brought about Moving Manila Forward, a new organization that aims to keep Manila beautiful and thriving,” according to a news release.

What started as the Manila Pilots Association seeking help for airport improvements turned into a community-wide effort to bring hometown pride back to Manila, officials said.

The Manila Pilots Association reached out to the Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and Ray Benson, Mississippi County Extension Staff chair, himself a pilot.

“The Manila Pilots Association met one afternoon and asked if there could be a way, through extension, that they could ask for help for the airport. To make it more visible, or to attract businesses,” Benson said. “Over the course of a few weeks, they recognized that the community and the airport are too intertwined to separate. They asked if we could grow this into a community project.”

Breakthrough Solutions program

After realizing the importance of the community to the airport and vice versa, Benson mentioned the Cooperative Extension Service’s Community and Economic Development department and its Breakthrough Solutions program.

Breakthrough Solutions has helped communities such as the city of Harrison and Cleveland County reinvigorate their economies and get people working together toward common goals. With help from the Mississippi County Extension service, Benson and the Manila Pilots Association got the ball rolling.

Jason Bennett, activities director for Manila Pilots Association, said focusing on working hand in hand with the community became an integral part of their efforts.

“It’s not just about the airport, it’s about the community,” Bennett said. “What the community has to offer and what the airport can bring to the community, too.”

The airport participated in many events that promoted the growth of the community.

“We’ve had movie nights, we had 300 pounds of fresh shrimp flown in for a cookout. Just coming up with ideas to promote Manila and its airport,” Bennett said.

Looking for answers

Outside of community activities, the first step of the Moving Manila Forward program was to discover what the community wanted. Moving Manila Forward Chairman Andrew Fleeman said an online survey was sent to citizens of Manila for feedback on what the community wanted to see.

The survey brought 330 responses, many with overlapping answers. Cleaning up the town, improving cell service, Wi-Fi, and sewer and water were the biggest responses.

“We got a lot of feedback about what things people loved about this town,” Fleeman said. “It has that small hometown feeling that everyone loves to be a part of.”

Fleeman said the positive responses made him realize that there were many citizens who wanted to make a difference, they just didn’t know how.

“I think the main thing we came to a consensus on was that we love the city and we love to push the town as far as we can, but there was never a central hub for everything to come together,” he said. “With Moving Manila Forward we are that central hub where everyone could come and share their ideas. People wanted a catalyst for change.”

The young people in the community were given a voice as well. Manila High School Principal Mark Manchester said he knows the importance of keeping teenagers and young adults involved in big projects.

“To really make a community great, it’s the young people that are the backbone of that effort,” he said. “We want to include the school in every event that Moving Manila Forward has and strengthen that bond.”

Manchester said the kids at Manila High School have big ideas for dressing up their town.

“One of the things the students are very good at is coming up with ideas for landscapes and things like that,” he said. “And we’re working hand in hand right now with our Manila High School Garden Club to try to get a community garden.”

He added that Manila students can contribute the technological skills they’ve learned.

“We have a top-notch computer science program here at the school,” Manchester said. “We have coding classes and our students actually won a statewide app development contest last year. We have a strong EAST program that has the ability to develop many different types of multimedia displays and social network options.”

Fleeman said keeping the younger generations in Manila is a challenge the town has faced for a long time.

“I think it’s really important to the younger community because we have a lot of people who grew up here that move away for college and never come back,” he said. “So, I think it’s really important for the younger generation to be involved.”

Small steps

Most projects are still in the planning stages because the group is still new, but changes are in the works. Donna Jackson, with Manila Museums, said they’re taking small steps in getting the town cleaned up.

“The city has hired a new code enforcement officer and we’ve been dealing with him about some things we can do to make our city more attractive,” she said. “Not just to new people, but to the people who are here to take pride in it. I think that pride will be contagious.”

Tandee White, community development program manager at Entergy Arkansas, discussed the importance of what the city is doing with Moving Manila Forward.

“Community development precedes economic development,” she said. “You have to start at the community level, the grass roots level, and give the citizens of the community a voice.”

The community involvement itself is enough to be proud of, Fleeman said.

“We see that fire in people that we haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “We really love seeing people getting excited about their hometown again.”

For details on Moving Manila Forward, contact Ray Benson at or (870) 762-2075. For more information on the Breakthrough Solutions visit or contact Mark Peterson at or 501-671-2253.

— Sarah Cato is with the U of A System Division of Agriculture.