The Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce is now the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce. If changes we see around the nation continue, the move earlier this month was a wise one.

The Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce is now the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce. If changes we see around the nation continue, the move earlier this month was a wise one.

More and more communities are looking toward regionalism during this difficult economic period and one caught our eye last week. Almost 300 leaders from 17 counties in southeast Kansas were told Thursday that to eliminate major barriers to economic growth their communities must stop thinking locally and start thinking regionally.

The region has the highest poverty rate, highest unemployment rate and lowest health index in the state. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback urged those in attendance to consider the hard numbers and avoid sugarcoating the problems.

Prior to calling the regional summit, called “Together We Succeed: Southeast Kansas Economic Improvement Initiative,” organizers interviewed 50 community leaders from the area to identify the top issues that inhibit economic growth.

The results should sound familiar to residents of southeast Arkansas: A lack of readiness to work; a lack of skill sets matching available jobs; localism versus regionalism; a strong welfare/poverty cycle; high rate of outward migration by young educated professionals; high rate of crime and drug abuse; a need to grow leadership; improved downtown pride and entertainment; and a shortage of quality housing.

Brownback urged summit participants to pick three to five issues, including poverty, and then establish goals in the next decade to improve the numbers. The task-oriented approach would mean publicizing the numbers every six months, identifying strategies and checking off whether progress is made.

A Rural Policy Research Institute representative identified the region’s greatest disadvantage as the “Friday Night Lights” syndrome of community being pitted against community during athletic events, then continuing the competition beyond the playing fields.

The top three goals were identified as ending the welfare/poverty cycle, ensuring that residents have a readiness to work, and moving from a local focus to a regional one, The Joplin Globe noted in a story.

It’s not easy to describe the progress made by the Southeast Arkansas Growth Initiative because it is still literally a work in progress. Established to help replace the 1,100 jobs that will be lost in the reduction in force at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, the focus was expanded to cover 14 counties that are home to arsenal employees.

Regionalism must be the center point of any development, Arkansas planners agree. That means changing mindsets with cities and counties competing for jobs and industries. There are a few islands of regionalism in Southeast Arkansas, but the number is limited.

Involving those areas that form a part of the regional economy — Arkansas, Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, Cleveland, Dallas, Desha, Drew, Grant, Jefferson, Lincoln, Lonoke and Saline counties, and a portion of Pulaski County — may be difficult.

The Southeast Arkansas initiative’s goal includes enlisting the skills, experience and networks of regional partners to expand employment and advancement opportunities for workers and catalyze the creation of high skill, high-wage job opportunities. For an area that has been depressed, it may not sound possible, but has been accomplished in other areas of the nation.

“Utopia 2030” — the initiative’s goal — involves enlisting the skills, experience and networks of regional partners to expand employment and advancement opportunities for workers and catalyze the creation of high skill, high-wage job opportunities. It may sound unlikely for an area that has been depressed, but it has been accomplished in other areas of the nation.

The initiative’s teams see regionalism as the only opportunity for communities to expand and graduates to remain close to their families if the jobs become available.

Without the jobs and economic growth, the 2010 Census population numbers will prove to be just a bad memory.