When Julie Murray drives through Heber Springs, she sees a community with great potential. During the summer months, the bluffs along Greers Ferry Lake are never quiet. The splash of divers and the persistent hum of boats are a welcome sound to an economic developer like Murray, Heber Springs Area Chamber of Commerce director, but attractive natural assets and tourism can only take a community so far. For Murray, better utilizing these community assets starts with some much needed direction, and this is where the University of Central Arkansas can help.
In August 2015, Heber Springs Mayor Jimmy Clark, Murray and interested community leaders began working with UCA’s Center for Community and Economic Development (CCED) to assess the strengths of their community. “I look forward to the future community and economic growth that will result from utilizing all of Heber Springs’ natural resources, as well as its citizens,” said Clark. This work will lead to partnerships within the community and local government to outline a plan of action for short- and long-term development efforts in Heber Springs.
UCA is one of the earliest leaders in community and economic development in the state of Arkansas.
CCED recently completed work in Paris, Arkansas on a very similar project. A small community at the base of Mt. Magazine State Park, Paris has much of the typical small-town charm found in many Arkansas communities. Good schools, safe living, Christmas fairs and farmers markets are all parts of the quality of life in Paris, yet community leaders were ready to strive for more.
Working in partnership with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Breakthrough Solutions program, CCED helped Paris craft an action plan that reflected the goals of the public, potential funders and local government. CCED rooted this planning effort in realistic outcomes, and as a result, success came quickly. From the time the planning process began in August 2014 until it was unveiled in May 2015, the citizens of Paris developed a new community brand, received state approval for a new workforce training center, announced the location of a new manufacturer to the city and completed the Eiffel Tower Park in the downtown square, which includes a small replica of the Eiffel Tower.
CCED is a small department in UCA’s Division of Outreach and Community Engagement. Its three full-time staff members work to connect all Arkansas communities with UCA. By focusing on educating community leaders, CCED works to equip Arkansans with economic tools and resources to bring about positive community change.
“Our statewide impact has grown in the past year, but this work wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of our partners,” said Amy Whitehead ’06, ’08, CCED director. Indeed, collaboration is critical to CCED’s mission. CCED works collaboratively with state agencies, local government officials, nonprofits and even other universities.
Focusing on the community’s experience has paid dividends for CCED and for Arkansas. “Local leaders and economic developers throughout Arkansas truly understand what it takes to make a community successful due to the work of CCED,” said Scott Hardin, spokesperson for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC). “AEDC values the training offered through CCED, and our staff sees the positive results of this training on a daily basis as we interact with Arkansas’ leaders.”
By consistently focusing on building effective partnerships, the level of statewide support for CCED is very high. This support has been demonstrated through working partnerships and ongoing external financial support. CDI raised $13,500 in private funds for scholarships at the 2015 Institute and received more than $12,500 in private sponsorships from Arkansas businesses in 2015.
This type of statewide support will be carried forward into the next three years. The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation recently awarded CCED an $84,000 grant to support its efforts to provide regional trainings and place-based technical assistance. “Our investment in CCED enables our small communities to address quality of life issues, develop new leaders and promote equity by eliminating economic and educational opportunity gaps,” said Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. “Engaging small municipal leaders in community and economic development training provides tremendous opportunities for our state’s most underserved communities.”
Through this grant work, CCED is looking forward to expanding its presence across the state. By building connections among communities at the regional level, CCED expects to use this grant funding to maximize potential growth opportunities for smaller communities. “This is an exciting time for our team and UCA,” said Whitehead. “Over the next three years, we will be able to truly engage with each region across Arkansas. We will be building new partnerships and actively demonstrating UCA’s support for Arkansas communities.”
- Completed five-year strategic plan, including the following:
- The installation of the Eiffel Tower Park in the downtown square
- The development and adoption of a new economic development brand and logo identity
- State approval to begin a satellite workforce training center
- The announcement that Rethink Storm Shelters would be located in Paris
- Assisted with development of comprehensive plan
- Developed economic development training program for Faulkner County
- Provided assistance with logo development in Vilonia
- Consulted on economic development strategies to grow the county’s economic base
- Completed First Impressions Tour for local economic development team
- Created a business retention and expansion program for implementation within the city