University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Extension Community and Economic Development announces the selection of two multicounty regions for participation in CREATE BRIDGES.


CREATE BRIDGES is a program designed to build up rural economies. CREATE BRIDGES was recently launched in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arkansas with the help of a $2.7 million grant from Walmart to the Southern Rural Development Center.


The Ozark Gateway region includes Sharp, Fulton, and Izard counties in north-central Arkansas, while the Little River, Sevier and Howard region is located in southwest Arkansas.


As part of this innovative initiative, the U of A System Division of Agriculture, the University of Kentucky and Oklahoma State University will collaborate to develop, refine and pilot a process to help rural communities build their capacity for strengthening the retail, tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors, which provide jobs and business opportunities that frequently boost rural economies.


“One of the exciting features of this program’s design is the focus on addressing needs of both employers and employees. We’re inspired by the number of regions interested in participating because it shows that there is a strong need and demand for programs focusing on these industries,” said Stacey McCullough, assistant director for Community and Economic Development at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “Working closely with the regional steering committees will ensure that we are building a foundation for success.”


The Ozark Gateway region was chosen for its clear desire to grow their tourism and retail industries as well as their demonstrated commitment to CREATE BRIDGES businesses. Famous for its annual Cave City Watermelon Festival, the area is currently in the planning process for a multi-city tourism event in 2019. It also boasts Ozarka College and the newly opened Spring River Innovation Hub. This region’s steering committee is comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders, ranging from city mayors to local business owners.


The Little River, Howard and Sevier region is working together to elevate CREATE BRIDGES businesses. The area is home to popular natural tourism spots, with heavy interstate traffic due tobecause of its proximity to major highways. This region’s steering committee is comprised of county judges and county extension agents, with a history of working together to conduct agricultural and leadership programming, and has the support of University of Arkansas Cossatot for potential training and educational opportunities.


Generally, the retail sector in rural communities often fills local needs and serves as an entry point for new workers. However, entry level workers do not always understand the career paths available that would allow them to move up or train for supervisory and management roles, officials say.


McCullough and Julianne Dunn, instructor-Economic Development, will work with state partners to facilitate a retail academy for regional leaders and a business retention and expansion program. They also will coordinate with regional workforce investment boards to identify opportunities for workforce training focused on incumbent and new workers. The program also will look at workforce solutions to retain workers and promote from within.


CREATE BRIDGES is being developed by a team of experts including McCullough, Dunn, University of Kentucky’s Alison Davis, Oklahoma State University’s Dave Shideler and Sara Siems, and the Southern Rural Development Center’s Rachel Welborn and Grace Langford.


CREATE BRIDGES builds upon Stronger Economies Together, or SET, a collaborative effort across 32 states led by the Southern Rural Development Center that helps rural counties work together to develop and implement an economic development plan for their multicounty region.


Details: https://uaex.edu/createbridges or Julianne Dunn at 501-671-2158 or jbdunn@uaex.edu.