“There is immense power when a group of people with similar interests gets together to work toward the same goals.”
What makes a place a great place to live? For most people, the answer to this question involves some combination of attractive options in employment, education, housing and local amenities, among other considerations. For five Arkansas counties, the answer—and a means of attaining it—lies in a new community and economic development program launched this past weekend at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain.
Uncommon Communities seeks to harness the power of impassioned citizens and show them how to transform their communities—right from their own backyards. It is a pilot program created by the Institute in partnership with Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service’s Breakthrough Solutions program and Vaughn and Sandy Grisham with their renowned community development work. Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties were chosen for the pilot in large part because of their proximity both to the Institute and to each other. Participants represent a wide swath of each community and include business leaders, educators, volunteers, parents, public-sector employees and elected officials.
The program consists of a series of five day-and-a-half-long training sessions at the Institute, during which speakers will be brought in from Arkansas and across the country to share their expertise. These sessions on the mountain will focus, broadly, on leadership, education, jobs, funding and sustainability. Between the meetings on Petit Jean, each county will work with a local steering committee to develop plans and complete projects.
In addition to an introduction from program partners to some of the processes and methodology involved in community and economic development, the first weekend session featured keynote addresses from Bill Fry, a former naval officer and one of the top turnaround specialists in the nation, and Col. Joe Dowdy, retired Marine officer and former senior executive at NASA. Both men delivered inspiring talks on leadership and the power of people who are willing to stand up and do what’s right. A sobering chill suffused the room when Dowdy said, “If you fail, our nation as we know it will cease to exist.”
Those words are a challenge. And according to Uncommon Communities, it is a challenge that has been met and overcome before—by counties just like those participating. To demonstrate some possibilities, Jon Chadwell of the Newport [Arkansas] Economic Development Commission detailed nine areas (and dozens of programs) in which the commission works to improve the town using money from a half-cent sales tax initiative. The tax, which squeaked by with 50.2 percent of the vote in 2002, recently passed again with 76 percent as a result of the highly visible improvements it has funded.
Ben Van Hooser, city administrator of Greenville, Ky., told of how his town of 4,300 earned more than $6 million worth of grants over eight years and completely transformed a downtown that participants called “sad,” “dying” and “dead.” He spoke as before-and-after images of the town were projected onto a screen. No doubt the “after” images, of tailored sidewalks, cheery painted storefronts and concert crowds spilling out of a courthouse square, will have visions dancing in participants’ heads for weeks to come, just as the motto of Van Hooser’s office will ring in their ears: “Don’t tell me why we can’t, tell me how we can.”
If the first meeting had a theme, it was the vital importance of human capital—specifically, the 30-some-odd citizens who had given up the better part of two days to learn about how to make their communities better. Over and over, participants heard a similar refrain: “You are the most important person in the room. You are the ones who are going to do it; nobody else is going to come in and do it for you.”
So perhaps the true answer to the question of place isn’t so much a what, but a who. What makes a place a great place to live? You. The answer is you.
This is the first in a series of posts about the Uncommon Communities program. In addition to highlighting work being done at the Institute, we will be spotlighting each participating community and all the great work they’re doing as a result of their participation in the program. We hope you’ll follow along with us and join us in cheering them on.