UA Cooperative Extension Service Project Studies Tourism And Retail Industries In Rural Counties

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The Create Bridges project is a collaboration between Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky on economic development in rural areas.
Credit Create Bridges

A new pilot program from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service is seeking the input and information from employees in certain sectors.

Create Bridges is a project studying rural economic development, in particular the retail, tourism, accommodations and entertainment industry.

Dr. Stacey McCullough is the Assistant Director for Community, Professional and Economic Development for the UA System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. She says these areas were chosen because often they are overlooked from an economic development perspective.

"They’re not the highest paying jobs, but the reality is they play a major role in the economies of rural communities all across our state. And also…these are the sectors where most of us start our first jobs, right? So, when we’re in high school or coming out, a lot of us work in these sectors," McCullough said.

Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma are working with the Southern Rural Development Center, located at Mississippi State University. According to McCullough, the project aims to understand the importance of the tourism and retail industries to rural economies.

"We wanted to take an approach where we sort of examine those issues from a regional perspective and in our case, we have two regions in our state: one up in north-central Arkansas, one in southwest Arkansas," McCullough said. "And really work with those local leaders in those regions to develop strategies to help address any of the challenges that are being faced by those business, but also equally important, the workers in those sectors."

In Arkansas six counties are participating. They are:

  • Howard
  • Little River
  • Sevier
  • Fulton
  • Izard
  • Sharp

The program itself started around 2018. Before the employee survey collection began, the program held community forums in several counties throughout 2019 to gather information on the selected industries. Julianne Dunn is the economic development instructor for the Extension Service. She says the forums were successful.

"Predominately the response was 'I didn’t know this much was going on in our community.' So that’s always the really powerful…that’s what you want to hear after an event. The hope that people feel after really seeing what they have laid out is…wasn’t our goal but it was a very great way to hear people absorbing what we were talking about," Dunn said.

The survey is different in that it’s asking for employees’ input. Dunn says that information is not normally gathered compared to information from employers.

"This kind of regional approach of asking the employees in the region 'What are you feeling? What are you seeing?' in an anonymous way that does not tie back to a specific employer, I think will be really powerful to see some of the results of what people are looking for in their employers and the businesses that they work for," Dunn said.

Those who work in the retail, tourism, accommodations or entertainment industries and live in the participating counties can participate in the survey. The deadline for submissions is February 29th. You can find the survey here.

Dunn says there are multiple goals of the overall study, with one of them being a heightened awareness of the importance of the retail and tourism industries in local economies. Another is to begin implementing training to better improve those sectors.

"Just skill-based knowledge is going to be a big piece of what they gain and whether that’s from us, from the Extension or we go out and find experts in the field or we find experts in the field that are actually in those communities, which would be the ideal. We’re going to help put some skills and resources in their hands to grow," Dunn said.