Go Forward Pine Bluff has been selected to participate in a new program that supports rural communities that are working to create jobs related to the digital economy.

According to a news release, the initiative is made possible via a cooperative agreement between Rural Innovation Strategies Inc. and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

In addition to Go Forward, participants in the program include: Codefi and the Marquette Tech District Foundation in Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Emporia, Kansas; Grinnell, Iowa; Independence, Oregon; Block22 in Pittsburg, Kansas; Red Wing Ignite in Red Wing, Minnesota; 20Fathoms in Traverse City, Michigan; and Wilson, North Carolina.

“These nine communities represent the best of what rural America has to offer: strong visions for the future, solid infrastructure, excellent quality of life, and the talented workforce needed to engage at a high-level in the digital economy,” said Matt Dunne, CORI Founder and executive director of RISI.

“We heard from more than 130 rural communities that are interested in pursuing an innovation hub strategy and these nine stood out. We are excited to work with them and know that their energy, local assets, and innovative strategies are sure to deliver results for their communities.”

More than 130 communities from 40 states applied to participate in the program, the news release said.

Mildred Franco, Executive Director of The Generator - an innovation hub powered by Go Forward Pine Bluff, recently spoke with The Commercial about Pine Bluff being selected to participate in the program.

“RuralLISK is an organization that is a network of 87 rural community organizations that are driving rural communities with economic development, education, and workforce (assistance),” Franco said.

“Basically what they do is get funded by private organizations and individuals, then they give out grants to different areas to support the initiative. They came to us last year and wanted to add one community to their portfolio in Arkansas. They were looking at two communities in Arkansas, with us being one of the two, so they asked us to submit information about Go Forward Pine Bluff, our board, financials, and information about our team members. Then they did their due diligence, met with us on the phone a couple of times to ask questions about different initiatives we are working on, then that went to their board. We submitted all of the information they requested, and their board accepted us to be a part of their network.”

According to the news release, participants will receive a range of support, from on-site and video conference time with RISI staff to templates and written resources as they execute an innovation hub strategy, which is an economic development model that works to educate and train local residents in digital skills, employ them in new economy jobs and empower them to launch the startups that will drive their digital economy.

Rural Innovation Initiative participants will have access to significant technical assistance to refine their economic development strategy, help them identify partnerships and leverage existing resources. Communities will secure live work space for the hub, raise up to $500,000 in operating funding and apply for matching funds at the end of the first quarter of 2019.

In addition to the intensive technical assistance provided to the communities selected for this round, rural communities that need more time beyond the first quarter of 2019 will have the opportunity to begin working with RISI’s team of rural economic development experts to build their capacity and prepare for future funding opportunities.

RISI is also creating a virtual network to support capacity building, link innovation hubs and enable communities to make connections to new sources of capital, expand their networks with national technology leaders and secure digital economy jobs for remote workers in their communities.

Participating communities were selected because they are in designated rural counties according to U.S. Census definitions or consortiums of rural communities in close geographic proximity to one another.

Successful communities have a combination of the following attributes: Existing high-speed broadband; available real estate, or significant portions of the community located in New Market Tax Credit census tracts and/or Opportunity Zones; partnership with a selective, four-year endowed residential college or university campus willing to partner; and a nonprofit organization prepared to lead the initiative. RISI works with its sister organization CORI to achieve sustainable economic success in small-town America. In September, CORI and its partners launched the Black River Innovation Campus (BRIC), an innovation hub located in Springfield, VT. CORI developed and regularly updates the Rural Opportunity Map, which provides a unique tool for identifying areas of opportunity in rural America.

Franco said that Go Forward Pine Bluff was one of just two organizations selected from submissions made all across the country.

“They selected us and the Center of Rural Innovation in New Hampshire as the two new organizations to be a part of their network,” Franco said. “Now that we are a part of their network we can start working with them. It opens a great deal of opportunities for grants and different funding, and it opens the organization to technical assistance. If we are applying for a big grant they are a great resource to tap into to help us figure out the best way to apply for it, or if we are trying to put together a program we can ask if they have anybody in their network who has the experience that we could have a conversation with.

“Having a relationship with Rural LISC opens up Pine Bluff to the best practices, technical assistance, grants, and other kinds of funding. It’s not always grants, but particular funding from foundations for specific projects.”