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Uncommon Communities initiative begins its third year

Uncommon Communities initiative begins its third year

PETIT JEAN MOUNTAIN, Ark. (Sept. 5, 2017) — The third year of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities initiative will kick off this week with a meeting in Morrilton.

This year’s sessions will differ from previous years in that the bimonthly meetings will take place in the five counties – Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell – that are part of the initiative. First up is Conway County, which will host the two-day workshop beginning Thursday at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton. In past years, the bimonthly meetings were held at the Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain.

“This year’s sessions will highlight the good work that these five counties have been doing since the start of the program in 2015,” said Janet Harris, director of programs for the Rockefeller Institute. “In addition to bringing in speakers and hearing from our partnering experts, our participating community leaders will help one another assess the potential strengths and opportunities for improvement in each of their communities. They will report on their successes and help each other look ahead to a vibrant and sustainable 21st century economy in rural Arkansas.”

Uncommon Communities marries the wisdom and proven methodology of Dr. Vaughn Grisham, a celebrated community development expert and professor emeritus of sociology and founding director of the McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi, with the award-winning Breakthrough Solutions partnership – under the direction of Dr. Mark Peterson at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service – and the expertise of Dr. Roby Robertson, retired professor of public administration and former director of the Institute of Government at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Uncommon Communities began as a pilot program focusing on five counties in the vicinity of the Institute: Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell. All of these counties are largely rural and have poverty rates between 17 and 23 percent; lost 1,249 jobs between 2007 and 2013; and have unemployment rates that are 109 percent of the state average. Uncommon Communities serves as a model in addressing these critical issues in quality of living and community/economic development.

“The Institute partnered with Drs. Grisham, Peterson and Robertson to create Uncommon Communities because we know it’s the kind of work that Winthrop Rockefeller did,” Harris said. “Gov. Rockefeller made significant contributions to rural Arkansas through personal philanthropy and through policy initiatives. We know he would be proud of the progress these five communities have made over the past two years.”

This week’s session will feature two guest speakers: Greg Tehven, co-founder of Emerging Prairie in Fargo, N.D., and Charlotte Strickland, founder of Strickly Speaking and director of professional development and training at the University of Central Arkansas. While most of the two-day session is restricted only for the community leaders participating in the initiative, the two keynotes are open to public. Those interested in attending the keynote presentation should contact program officer Samantha Evans at 501-727-6257 or sevans@uawri.org.

For more information about Uncommon Communities, visit www.rockefellerinstitute.org/institute-programs/uncommon.

 

About the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute

In 2005, the University of Arkansas System established the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute with a grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. By integrating the resources and expertise of the University of Arkansas System with the legacy and ideas of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, this educational institute and conference center creates an atmosphere where collaboration and change can thrive.

Program areas include Agriculture, Arts and Humanities, Civic Engagement, Economic Development, and Health. To learn more, call 501-727-5435, visit the website at www.rockefellerinstitute.org, or stay connected through Twitter and Facebook.

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Uncommon Communities spurs community development in Conway County

Spend a few minutes talking with Barry McKuin and it quickly becomes evident how much he loves Conway County. You can hear it in his voice and his choice of words. He’s spent the greater part of his life there. It’s home.

But not too terribly far in the past, he says, he felt that something was missing. He just couldn’t quite put his finger on it. But it kept coming to mind whenever he would discuss economic development and job recruitment in Conway County. In his community.

Then, approximately 20 years ago, McKuin was at a symposium in Batesville where he heard a speech from Dr. Vaughn Grisham, professor emeritus of sociology and founding director of the McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi. Something Dr. Grisham said immediately struck the now former director of the Conway County Economic Development Corp. “That’s it! That is what’s missing.”

Community development precedes economic development, Dr. Grisham said. 

“The message from Vaughn Grisham [was about] the history of Tupelo focusing on community development, and how it led to economic development,” said McKuin, who is currently on the board of directors at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. “I have never been one to take many notes, but I found myself writing on every blank piece of paper I had.”

Fast forward a couple decades.

In August 2015, the Institute began training sessions for a two-year pilot program based on the methodology and insight of Dr. Grisham. This community and economic development program, Uncommon Communities, was created with the goal of producing community leaders who were equipped to assess the gaps in their communities, as well as mobilize the community to fill those gaps in the areas of economic development, education and workforce development, and quality of life and place, said Cary Tyson, the former program officer who led the pilot program at the Institute. The program was developed as a partnership between the Institute, Dr. Grisham, Breakthrough Solutions – under the direction of Dr. Mark Peterson at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service – and Dr. Roby Robertson, retired professor of public administration and former director of the Institute of Government at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“Before you can do 21st century economic development,” Tyson said, “you have to do community development.”

Tyson also noted that from the beginning, representatives from all five counties who participated in the Uncommon Communities training – counties near the Institute: Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell – all participated together. They had to learn to cooperate with each other more as partners and less, perhaps, as competition.

“Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller strongly believed in partnership and regionalism,” Tyson said. “I always called it, ‘coopertition.’”

To that purpose, said current Institute program officer Samantha Evans, year three of Uncommon Communities will feature tours of each participating county, during which representatives will be able to report on their community development progress. This new aspect – which will kick off with a tour of Conway County – will allow communities to learn from each other and assess what might work for them in their own backyards.

“If you want jobs, want economic development, then you have to have leaders – the right people on the bus,” Evans said. “Then you just determine where you want to go.”

Dr. Linda Birkner, vice chancellor of administration at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, is already on that bus, and she’s already looking forward to touring her neighboring counties to witness the transformations taking place.

“We’re building bridges, really – ‘people-bridges’ – to address any problem that may arise in our community,” said Birkner, who moved to Conway County in 1984.

In fact, to continue with the bridges metaphor, Birkner says she can best describe the work that has been taking place in Conway County under Uncommon Communities as “making connections.” And, nowhere was the importance of community connections more evident than during Munchin on Main Street – a new one-day community festival that was a big success this past spring.

Due to some unforeseen challenges, the joint project of Main Street Morrilton, the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce and Uncommon Communities had to come together in a relatively short period of time: music, entertainment, food trucks and activities for kids all had to be finalized within six weeks. Not only did everything come together, it was such a success that another festival is planned for next year, as well.

“That would have never been able to happen in six weeks if we had not already had all those [Uncommon Communities] meetings and made those community relationships,” Birkner said.

Munchin on Main was a dynamic community achievement. Perhaps the type of dynamic achievement McKuin felt was missing from Conway County over the years. It didn’t help that an existing leadership program ended in the mid-2000s, McKuin said. But that’s now slowly coming back.

“As a result of Uncommon Communities, we were motivated to restart the leadership training (Leadership Conway County),” he said. “We had our first graduating class last year and we already have a second class filled for 2017. Through our leadership classes we are identifying community projects that merit working together and developing funding, when appropriate.”

But the success of Uncommon Communities can perhaps be best summed up in something else McKuin said: “This is not the end of the story.”

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Final thoughts from a leader

I remember the first time I met Dr. Dan Rahn. He was taller than I expected, distinguished and had a handshake that could crush a cue ball.

I watched him over a two-and-a-half-day period in late 2013 as he and 60 other health care leaders debated and discussed the issue of obesity in Arkansas. Dr. Rahn was passionately cool, if such a thing exists. He addressed each complexity of the issue with pointed thoughtfulness. He was careful not to dominate the conversation, though when he spoke, people listened.

Through his leadership and that of many others – like Dr. Joe Thompson of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and Dr. Joe Bates, now retired from the Arkansas Department of Health – a plan to combat obesity was born.

The plan was formally drafted here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute throughout 2014, and in 2015 we sought and received the endorsement of Gov. Asa Hutchinson to launch Healthy Active Arkansas, a statewide initiative to increase the number of Arkansans who are at a healthy weight.

Throughout that process and since, my impression of Dr. Rahn hasn’t changed. He’s often the smartest person in the room, but he treats everyone he encounters with respect.

Today is Dr. Rahn’s official last day as chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. When I met with him a couple of weeks ago, his shelves were already empty, his desk nearly bare. I encountered that same strong handshake, and Dr. Rahn eased from pleasantries and salutations to a succinct assessment of the origin of Healthy Active Arkansas.

“The starting point was specifically focused on obesity,” he began with the kind of energy one would expect from a leader just stepping into his role, not leaving it. “In Arkansas, we have a strategy for the health care sector. That strategy is insurance expansion, promulgation of electronic health information through incentives, and payment redesign. We’re gradually shifting from a volume-based structure to a value-based structure.”

He continued to explain to me the problem that UAMS and other health care systems face when trying to address obesity.

“If one looks at the drivers of ill health in Arkansas, there is an uneven distribution. The majority of the factors that contribute to ill health are not due to access to high-quality health care services. The majority are due to social and behavioral factors. The general concept is about 80 percent of the determinants of health care outcomes are external to the health care delivery system.

“Through our strategy for health care, we can deal with the consequences of obesity, but we can’t deal with the root cause.”

He says his support for Health Active Arkansas was borne of a desire to “move upstream” and work on strategies to prevent obesity from occurring in the first place. That decision starts at birth with a mother’s decision to breastfeed, he says, and continues through the child’s life with their intake of healthy foods and their level of physical activity (which, he notes, are both often affected by access).

I ask him about the state of Healthy Active Arkansas today, where we are and where we’re headed. I’ve learned over the past several years that Dr. Rahn is not a man to talk around a topic. He keenly analyzed our current organization, identifying that the HAA board is weighing a decision of whether to approach the initiative with a top-down management approach or a bottom-up system of encouragement. Faced with a decision between these two approaches, “the answer is likely ‘yes,’” he says and laughs.

He acknowledges the challenges of motivating players from various sectors to commit to the same ideals, especially if it involves instituting new policies or limiting choices, such as reforming the way vending machines are stocked.

I’ve long thought that Dr. Rahn is a prime example of someone who embraces what Jim Collins called the “Stockdale Paradox” in his best-seller Good to Great. The concept, broadly defined, is that the best approach to problems is to always preserve hope of a positive outcome while always honestly confronting the challenges that are in front of you.

In our conversation, swift on the heels of describing some of HAA’s challenges, Dr. Rahn follows with what has been encouraging to him.

“I think we’ve progressed well with no new funding,” he says. “I think it has been an effective, inclusive process. I think we’ve done a good job of raising awareness of the importance of the issue … and that we need to take control of our own health and our own future – at the family level, at the community level, at the employer level.”

Looking to the future of Healthy Active Arkansas, Dr. Rahn cautions against taking an all-or-nothing approach.

“We don’t want to get stuck saying ‘if we can’t do everything, then we can’t do anything.’”

Another challenge will be determining measures of success that will effectively determine whether our efforts are making a difference.

“This is a generational thing,” he says. “Change occurs across generations. So what will be our measures of success that will provide encouragement to stay the course?”

He also points out the importance of the collaborative nature of Healthy Active Arkansas.

“It’s important for each party or participant to not become something that it isn’t, but to bring its strengths to the table and to be working in collaboration and partnership with other individuals and organizations that have complementary strengths.”

I ask him about health literacy. As someone involved in the marketing aspect of Healthy Active Arkansas, health literacy comes up often as a key issue in the battle against not just obesity, but diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and a host of other health-related issues.

Dr. Rahn points out that health literacy is not about whether people understand technical words about health care, it’s whether they understand important concepts, getting to the “why” of health care and moving to a level of understand beyond just the “what.”

As we move toward that future, preparing to take on those challenges, it will be a little harder without Dr. Rahn involved. Healthy Active Arkansas is losing one of its original champions. Two of his colleagues on the Healthy Active Arkansas board gave their thoughts on the outgoing chancellor.

“Dan provided critical leadership in both articulating and committing both his institution and encouraging others across the state to join together to address this environmental threat to our future health, productivity and economic well-being,” Thompson said.

Dr. Nate Smith, state health officer and director of the Arkansas Department of Health, had this to say:

“Under Chancellor Rahn’s leadership, UAMS has been an invaluable ally in the statewide efforts to reduce obesity and chronic disease. Our progress in obesity prevention and reduction wouldn’t have been possible without Dr. Rahn’s support as chancellor of the state’s only academic health center. Arkansas is a healthier state because of UAMS’ commitment to public health, and Dr. Rahn has been at the center of that commitment for the past eight years.”

Many people know Dr. Rahn better than I do. I can’t share personal stories of fun memories or tell you what it was like to work with him day in and day out. But I’ve watched him lead from a close distance. He hasn’t always led by being in front of a group, but he’s always led.

From my vantage point, Dr. Rahn has been the type of leader Arkansas needed at the exact moment he was here. He leaves Healthy Active Arkansas in good hands, but he will be missed.

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A touch of the Unexpected in Fort Smith

Unexpected. Far more than just a catchy name, the word “unexpected” truly captures the spirit of the yearly art celebration in Fort Smith, the Unexpected Mural Festival.

Curated by art network JustKids, the Unexpected is an initiative to bring international artists and creative artwork to downtown Fort Smith, Ark., perhaps not the first venue that would come to mind as the focal point for world-class art. Yet that is part of what makes it the perfect backdrop. Walking through a downtown that has been a lynchpin in Arkansas history and industry and seeing walls and alleyways adorned with bright colors and stunning tableaus serves as a bridge to the present. The murals and installed artworks are also enhanced by the history surrounding them. There is a symbiosis between old and new that helps one appreciate them both through the contrast.

Mural by DFace

That is not to say, however, that the murals and other art don’t have a Fort Smith flavor. Much of the art ties into Fort Smith’s frontier past and its proximity to Oklahoma featuring Western and Native American themes. New Zealand artist ASKEW, for instance, met with a modern Cherokee chief in Oklahoma while conceptualizing his mural. Inspired by the meeting, ASKEW created a mural incorporating the faces of four Cherokee women close to the chief: his mother, wife, daughter and sister.

Mural by ASKEW

The nod to the history and culture of Fort Smith in so many murals was itself unexpected. Artists are given free range to create the murals, without the need for approval or input from the organizers or the business owners on whose walls they are working. This leap of faith has been rewarded year after year with thoughtful and stunning works of art. This running success is a testament to careful selection of world-class artists whose chosen medium happens to be mural work.

Mural by UAFS students

Something else one might not expect as part of a mural festival are the variety of installed elements accompanying the art. From standalone sculptures of local fauna made from metal scraps, to incorporated neon lights, several pieces of art go beyond flat walls and bring the viewer inside of the work. At the Unexpected headquarters in the historic New Theater, artist Doze Green has installed his work “The Divine Sparks Project.” The work pulls visitors into a darkened space, through an entryway lit by dime blue lights that make the stark white figures painted on the walls jump out. Past the entrance, the space opens up into the theater proper with custom neon figures lighting up the walls and a pair of blue giants towering on either side of the proscenium. Standing on the darkened stage, flanked by colossal abstract figures and looking out a ring of glowing outlines on the far wall, you lose yourself for a moment.

Divine Sparks Project 1

Divine Sparks Project 2

Divine Sparks Project 3

Another piece that invites interaction is by Amsterdam artists Circus Family. “TRIPH” is an installed work that features glowing geometric shapes and ambient sounds that react to viewer interaction. In the absence of spectators, the lights are dull and the sounds nearly non-existent. When approached, however, the shapes light up and pulse with different colors, and sounds fill the space. The work is a fantastic blend of art and technology that takes the viewer out of passive role.

Mural by UAFS student

Carved mural by Vhils

There are so many great artworks to discus, from work that was chiseled into plaster, a mural on a print shop storage building appropriately featuring Guttenberg, to abstract pieces that speak for themselves, but words do them only so much justice. You really can’t know what it’s like until you’ve seen it for yourself. Even though the festival is over, the art remains an integral part of Fort Smith. I encourage you to make the trip and take a stroll downtown. Soak in the history, shop the shops and expect the Unexpected.

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Up, up and away

I work with a superhero.

Not the kind you see this time of year on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and tend to geek out over comic book movies as much as anyone, but this story isn’t full of explosions, high-speed chases and daring rescues.

But it does involve super powers: quiet strength, fierce determination and perseverance that is as humbling as it is inspiring.

LaTonya Cockrell doesn’t quit. She just doesn’t. She started college back in 1993 at what was then Petit Jean Technical College (today the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, or UACCM). Her educational journey took her from Morrilton to Pulaski Technical College and then to the University of Central Arkansas. But as is the story for many of us, life’s unforeseen circumstances got in the way of her finishing her degree during that first go-round.

The easy thing would be to give up. No one would have faulted her for saying, “college just isn’t for me.” But that’s not how LaTonya approaches life. More than 20 years after she first enrolled at UACCM, LaTonya went back to school through the University of Arkansas System’s eVersity to obtain her Associate of Science in information technology.

LaTonya is good at her job. She joined the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Conference Food Service department in 2012 as a front-of-house server. Her infectious smile and laugh make it easy to work with her and make our customers feel welcomed. And even though she enjoys her job and co-workers, she felt the time was right to continue her education.

“I decided to go back due to financial reasons,” she says. “If I go back and finish my degree, I can do better not only for my children, but for myself.”

One of the things holding her back in her journey was the financial strain of paying for college classes while supporting her family. LaTonya then heard about eVersity through a co-worker and it seemed to be the perfect fit.

“I looked into other online classes and the cost was not in my budget, and I have no time to attend classes on campus,” she says. “After hearing that eVersity was just $165 a credit hour, I knew it would fit my life and my budget.”

The process, she says, has been fulfilling. She has finished 10 classes during her time enrolled, each class lasting 6 weeks. All of her credits from the other institutions transferred easily, which helped give her a jump-start in the program. Through her advisors, instructors, even financial aid workers, LaTonya has found a strong support system of people who want to help her reach her goals. Though easier than she first thought, like any good superhero story there have been obstacles to overcome.

“It was scary, transitioning back to being a student,” she says. “Online classes and the Blackboard were completely new to me. Time management has been a real struggle, too, having to stay up later when the kids are asleep. But everyone has been there to help me.”

One aspect of the help she’s gotten has been an opportunity here at work. LaTonya approached management about ways she might be able to get some on-the-job training in IT, and our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, along with our IT manager, Chris O’Cain, found a way to offer LaTonya an internal internship with our IT department. For a few hours a week, she is able to shadow our IT people and assist with their work.

“In school, you learn all the concepts, but you don’t get that hands-on experience,” O’Cain says. “With this internship, LaTonya will get to learn how things work in the real world.”

The importance of that hands-on training isn’t lost on LaTonya.

“When I found out that they were creating the internship, I was excited and wanted to cry,” LaTonya says. “I was overwhelmed that the Institute was willing to help me further my education and career in a way that is unrelated to my position here.”

The next step in LaTonya’s journey is to complete her Bachelor of Science in information technology, which she is working on. She’s proud of her success, and she’s willing to share her story with anyone who needs a bit of encouragement to pursue or finish a degree.

“You need a degree to make it and take care of yourself and your family,” she says matter-of-factly. “You want them to see you succeed; it will mean so much.”

It has meant a lot to me to work alongside this superhero, and I can’t wait to see what successes are in store for her.

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97-year-old Royal Theatre remains a gem

If only the brick walls of the Royal Theatre in downtown Benton could talk, I imagine the conversation would be full of amusing, awe-inspiring tales of the different types of people who have graced the interior of the two-story historic structure. From early movie days in the 1920s to the ’50s when concessions were sold to passersby on the street, and later in the ’90s when actor Jerry Van Dyke owned the theater and adjacent Soda Shoppe, the Royal Theatre has touched many lives throughout the past century.

In 2004 when I joined the staff at the Benton Courier (now the Saline Courier), I quickly learned from seasoned reporter and editor Lynda Hollenbeck – a Royal Players board member and veteran cast and crew participant – the important role the theater plays in the community. During my newspaper tenure I would go on to know other key players of the Royal, such as theatre manager Shannon Moss and founding members the late Gayla McCoy, Louann Cameron and Selena Ellis.

The Royal Players (formerly the Central Arkansas Community Players) has called the Royal Theatre home since 2000 when Van Dyke deeded the building to the performance group. Established in 1994, for the first few years the theatre group put on plays at Benton High School’s Butler Auditorium. The Royal Players and the Young Players for youth have produced more than 100 plays.

The original section of the Royal Theatre was built in 1920 when it was known as the IMP, an acronym for Independent Motion Pictures, according to the history section of the theater’s website. The theater was remodeled and the name changed to the Royal in 1949. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman relinquished control of the Royal to his son Warren Lee and his wife, Mildred. In 1986, Warren Lee passed ownership to his son Randy Kauffman, who continued to manage it until 1996 when he sold it to Van Dyke.

Because the Royal Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Royal Players is able to apply for preservation grants and low-interest loans to help maintain the structure for all to enjoy for years to come.

Susan Dill, president of the Royal Players Board of Directors, gives Van Dyke credit for cleaning up downtown. The area has been on the upswing ever since.

“The area continues to improve, and we attract people from all of central Arkansas,” Dill says, adding that the theater “improves the quality of life for all who experience it, from the actors to the people who come to watch.”

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s very own Jeff LeMaster, director of communications and marketing, grew up in Benton, calling the Royal “our movie theater.” Until Tinseltown theater was built in 1997, LeMaster says the Royal was the only option for seeing movies locally.

“One of my most vivid memories of the Royal was when we went to see The Rescuers Down Under with my family. About halfway through the movie, they stopped the projector and the manager came in and told the audience that it was snowing pretty hard outside and that he would give us a rain check ticket if we wanted to leave. My parents opted to stay and finish the movie even though most people left, and by the time we got out of the theater, there was about six inches of snow on the ground. It took us a while to get home, but I remember thinking how cool it was to have the theater almost all to ourselves.”

LeMaster echoes Dill’s sentiments about downtown’s improvement during the Van Dyke days.

“Back in the ’90s, Benton’s downtown was struggling. Businesses were having a hard time staying open, and there were lots of vacant buildings. The one little glimmer of life was the Royal. That became especially true when Jerry Van Dyke installed the soda shop next door and the Royal installed a stage and began producing live local theater. The soda shop venture didn’t last, but I remember being amazed at how many more people I saw on Market Street during that time.”

With the increased foot traffic came a renewed interest from investors to revive vacant buildings near the Royal that remain occupied.  

Since the Royal Players took control of the building, the Royal Theatre is not only a stellar downtown asset, but also a safe haven for youth and adults to come together to be themselves, establish bonds and gain valuable life lessons.

Payton Christenberry, a program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in charge of arts and humanities programs, also grew up in Benton and recalls fondly his time as part of the Royal Players.

The Royal was a big part of my teenage and early adult years, performing on stage and working behind the scenes,” Christenberry says. “I didn’t appreciate its history at the time, but there was no way to miss the presence the building has. From the classic theater marquee to the towering ceiling inside to the creak of the chairs, everything pulls you into another world.

“What sticks out most, though, is how many people the Royal brings together. I got to meet and work with people from my community on something we all shared a passion for. On top of that, we got to perform for our friends and neighbors. I can’t think of a time I felt more connected to my hometown than standing on stage to take a final bow beside my fellow cast and crew in front of a packed house. I wouldn’t have those memories without the Royal.”

That intrinsic link to the artistic and commercial health of a community will be a key theme at the Rockefeller Institute’s upcoming Historic Theaters Conference, which will be held at the Institute on Petit Jean Mountain Thursday, Aug. 10, through Friday, Aug. 11.

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Morrilton’s Rialto Theatre undergoes epic transformation through the years

The Hollywood stars who once graced its screen may be gone with the wind (if you’ll forgive the play on words), but the Rialto Theatre still remains a gem in downtown Morrilton today. Actually, the story of the theater — with its myriad stops and starts, and especially its survival in the face of long odds — would arguably be worthy of the sweeping epics that used to screen there.

Not so long ago it appeared the more-than-100-year-old landmark had outlived its relevance: doomed to the same finale as countless aging buildings before it. In the 1990s, the Rialto was slated for demolition – to make room for a parking lot. Progress, it seemed, had caught up with the Rialto and left it behind. Movie-goers had long ago moved onto bigger multiplexes, larger screens and state-of-the-art surround sound.

Rialto-old

The first film showed at the Rialto in 1911. In the 1950s, the building was gutted and seating increased. It reopened to great acclaim with a showing of Lovely to Look At, starring Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton. In the 1970s, it was again modified to keep up with the times and was converted to three screens. It didn’t last, however, and the following decade, the once-grand theater was shut down.

For years, the Rialto sat there boarded up and empty — a deteriorating relic whose golden age had played out its run. Enter our hero in this script.

Lindell Roberts wasn’t the only person who helped save the Rialto, but if this were one of those “based-on-a-true-story” movies, this gregarious Morriltonian would undoubtedly play a leading role.

“When I would drive through downtown, I would look at it (the Rialto) and think, ‘We need to turn that into a performance theater.’ This was around 1995,” Roberts recounted one morning from the sidewalk outside the Rialto. Occasionally people would honk and wave as they drove past.

“Then one day, our new mayor at the time, Stewart Nelson, called me up and asked, ‘What would you think about making the old Rialto into a performance theater?,’” Roberts recalled between waves. “I said, ‘When do you want to start?’”

And like those feel-good celluloid stories that never get old, hard-working members of the community came together to bring the regal lady back to life. Most of the early labor was made up entirely of volunteers, Roberts said. Improved lighting was installed, a new stage was built and a proscenium added. A capital improvement grant helped renovate the building next door, which became a connected art gallery. A donor, Afton King, paid for the installation of the necessary dressing rooms for performers. A local artist even came in to restore the murals along the walls of the main seating hall that were added in 1952 when the theater was beginning its second life.

“When The Rep (in Little Rock) did their renovation, they gave us the seats that came out of the theater,” Roberts said, recalling just how broad the backing for this success story has been. “We have great community support for this theater. A lot of towns our size don’t have something like this (a downtown theater).”

Current Morrilton Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer agrees. “I’ve been to cities all over Arkansas that deeply regret tearing down their downtown theater,” he said. “In fact, cities are now building replicas of historic theaters. We did a good thing preserving this piece of history. No one regrets saving history.”

Roberts helped create the Rialto Community Arts Center Board, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Conway County, to manage the renovation and operation of the theater, which is now called the Rialto Community Arts Center. He was the first president and currently serves as chairman. The reopened 400-seat venue hosted its first performance in 2000 and has been used frequently ever since for a variety of plays, concerts, murder-mystery dinners and, of course, films, such as the classic Gone with the Wind, which was screened a few years ago. Next door — formerly a hardware store — houses a meeting center (complete with a full kitchen) and an art gallery, which varies its exhibits every few months.

This type of success story is part of what will be highlighted at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference on Aug. 10-11. The conference, which only costs $75 to attend (includes lodging and meals), will feature experts in historic preservation, fundraising and art as a method of community and economic development. It will also include time for networking among people who are all passionate about ensuring their community’s historic theater has its own success story.

Most seem to agree that Morrilton isn’t ready for the credits to roll on the Rialto, a true historic Arkansas landmark.

“Art is a part of what makes communities unique, and artists bring with them passion,” Lipsmeyer said. “I like knowing we have a space for our citizens to enjoy art, perform, celebrate, demonstrate and show their talent. I believe art will be a vital part of our downtown revitalization.

“We are a better city because of the Rialto.”

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Leading the way

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute was proud to send Janet Harris, director of programs, to participate in the 2016-17 session of Leadership Arkansas. Leadership Arkansas, a program of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, provides an immersive experience for up-and-coming leaders in Arkansas to learn and grow in their leadership capacity.

Institute Executive Director Dr. Marta Loyd had this to say about Janet's experience:

"Upon nominating Janet for Leadership Arkansas, I knew the experience would be a win-win-win. I was not disappointed in that it was a win for Janet - she grew professionally and personally and built lasting relationships across the state. It was a win for Leadership Arkansas - Janet is intellectually curious and has a sharp mind. I am certain the class benefited greatly by her participation. And it was a win for the Institute - Janet was able to spread the word to class XI about our compelling mission and the good work we are doing here. I am proud of Janet for her commitment to the program and congratulate her on making the most of the opportunity."

Janet recently responded to some questions we had about her experience.

Q: What expectations did you have going into Leadership Arkansas? How did the experience compare to your initial expectations?

A: Having formerly traveled the state extensively as a leader in state government, I looked forward to engaging with private sector leaders from the perspective of the Institute, learning more about their successes and hearing their perspective on Arkansas’ workforce development challenges. The experience exceeded my expectations in that regard, particularly in the way that we were welcomed into each community and allowed access to “behind-the-scenes” operations at some of our state’s leading industries and the candid conversations we were able to have with them. Arkansas is such a diverse state, with each of our regions having unique strengths and opportunities for growth.  I found the experience of meeting those local leaders and spending time with them in their communities to be invaluable. 

Q: What is one or more things you learned about Arkansas, business or leadership that you did not know before LA?

A: We had some wonderful leadership and personal development sessions during the program. The ones that stand out the most are the visioning and leadership exercises we participated in at Crystal Bridges, where we were encouraged to think about leadership through our experience with art, and our last session with Dr. Jeff Standridge, who tailored a leadership exercise for us that really caused me to think deeply about my personal and professional goal-setting.

Q: Describe one of your favorite memories from your experience.

A: The state government and military session held at the State Capitol and at Little Rock Air Force Base, respectively, were my favorite sessions. We held a mock legislative session at the Capitol, which for me felt like coming home after my years in state government. Gen. Joe Wilson, a class member of ours, was such a gracious host at the LRAFB, and not only were we given a fantastic behind-the-scenes tour of the base, but we also had a chance to fly on a C-130, which was quite the thrill. I even managed to keep down my lunch! Overall, though, the connections and friendships I made with my classmates will be what I value most in the years to come. We had a great time getting to know one another and developed a deep respect for the work that we are each doing in our communities.

Q: How will your class of LA stay connected and engaged?

A: We have appointed two dynamic class representatives who are already finding opportunities for us to reconnect with each other. Thanks to the leadership of class member Mark Scott of Walmart, we are having a bonus session in Bentonville later in July. And, I am so pleased that Leadership Arkansas Class XII will host their opening session at the Institute, where I will be helping out as an alum. We have a Facebook group where we keep up with each other’s professional accomplishments and family news, and we have committed to participating as alums together for various other Class XII sessions. I am hoping that we can bring Leadership Arkansas alumni to the mountain for a summit-style working session like we do for our Under 40 Leaders, so that we can continually keep this group of professionals engaged in contributing to solutions for Arkansas.

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Addressing a looming crisis

Rural health care in Arkansas is an ever-evolving, complex system. There are many different branches of a multitude of organizations all working toward the same goal: a healthier rural population. From local faith-based organizations providing weekly check-ins on elderly residents all the way to statewide initiatives working at the policy level to help provide more resources and support to rural Arkansas, all the stakeholders are doing what they can to move the needle in their own ways.   

Dr. Mark Jansen

As with any complex system, however, there are many challenges and crises facing rural health that extend beyond what any one organization can do on their own. Mark T. Jansen, M.D., medical director of UAMS regional programs, made that clear to us when he approached us about a looming crisis in rural Arkansas: a rapidly aging population and decreasing number of practicing rural doctors. It was clear to Dr. Jansen and to us that there would be no silver bullet solution to the problem and that diverse solutions required a diverse set of minds to develop.

Following what we call the “Rockefeller ethic,” we sought to find those innovative and collaborative solutions to the impending crisis by calling together the experts and stakeholders in rural health from around Arkansas. Forty-six participants answered the call and attended the inaugural Rural Health Summit on March 23-24. The Summit members represented major health institutions, places of higher learning, state organizations, municipalities, health clinics, membership organizations and beyond. Each organization represented is working on improving rural health in their own way, but the Summit participants took it a step further by giving their time and applying their unique expertise to closely examine the existing and upcoming gaps in service delivery and plot a collaborative course to better health care in rural Arkansas.

Rural Health Summit

Those 46 Summit members put in an astounding effort during the noon-to-noon Summit, producing a list of resources, needs and critical questions about rural health care across the state in six different regions (northwest, north central, northeast, southeast, southwest and central Arkansas). The Summit members produced a list of over 120 services and resources currently available, compiled more than 140 needed services and resources, and identified 27 service and need areas that require closer scrutiny.

Beyond all of the impressive data they provided, the best part about the commitment of the Summit members is that they will be actively addressing those need areas beyond the Summit itself. During the Summit they selected a 12-member COMMITtee that will work with us at the Institute to see where the larger group can make the most impact. We’ll meet with the COMMITtee bi-monthly for the rest of the year to make sense of all the data, bring in new Summit members and start filling the gaps in rural Arkansas health care through a collaborative effort. 

It is a phenomenal privilege to work with people who not only dedicate their careers to improving Arkansas health care, but who also find time outside of their normal duties to see where they can help more. I also want to extend special thanks to Dr. Jansen and the Blue & You Foundation. The Summit was designed in partnership with Dr. Jansen, who also sponsored a portion of the Summit as the invested chair for the Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, George K. Mitchell, M.D., Endowed Chair in Primary Care. The initial Summit and follow-up activities are also made possible in part through a grant from the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas.   

I look forward to continuing our work with this great group of dedicated individuals to positively impact rural health in Arkansas.

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Our own version of March Madness

March came shooting out of a cannon at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. We put on four programs in March, up from our typical 1-2 per month schedule that we typically adhere to.

We kicked off the month with the second annual Under 40 Forum, which brought some of the state’s brightest young leaders, as designated by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal and Arkansas Business, together for a  two-day facilitated discussion on the fractures that divide our state and ways to heal them. The Forum is held in conjunction with the Clinton School of Public Service. One the participants – Eric Wilson, CEO of Noble Impact – offered this feedback on the Forum: “Every state has a 40 Under 40 list, and most of them are photo opportunities and a happy hour. But here in Arkansas, we’re trying to do something more. Instead of just taking a photo, we’re getting everybody together in a room and asking them to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing our state.”

A report detailing the group’s findings is forthcoming and will be distributed to leadership across the state in government, business and communities.

Then about a week later on a cool spring day, more than 65 participants gathered at the Institute for the Business Workshop for Landowners. Part of a partnership with Mississippi State University’s Natural Resource Enterprise Program and the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, the workshop provided experts with in-the-field knowledge on how to manage the land and look at their land with a different focus.

The morning session included a field tour just a short drive from the Institute on the property of Mr. Henry Jones. The property included 288 acres of short-leaf pine and hardwoods. The property has been in Mr. Jones’ family since 1884 and started out as a cotton field and evolved through the years to some timber property and space for the family to hunt and experience nature. During the field tour, participants enjoyed talks from wildlife biologists, foresters and Mr. Jones discussing the history of the property and different forestry management techniques such as thinning to improve forest stands and disking for wildlife. Mr. Jones was able to show his success after implementing these techniques in one year’s time: a quail covey established on the west end of his property. 

After lunch, attendees heard talks on recreational enterprise opportunities, legal liability issues and estate planning. We sold out the event this time and already have folks asking about the next workshop. We hope to have another one in the fall, with an announcement coming late spring or early summer.

The following day, on March 10, we held our ninth Uncommon Communities training. Uncommon Communities is our community and economic development program done in partnership with Dr. Vaughn Grisham, the Cooperative Extension’s Breakthrough Solutions program and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s School of Public Affairs. In this session, our five participating counties – Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell – were coached in quality of place and placemaking.

Representatives from Yell County presented to the group their plans for downtown revitalization in Dardanelle. These plans include installation of a hammock park, a dog park, historical re-enactments, bike and walking trails, a Native American heritage museum and more.

Finally, on March 23-24, we held our Rural Health Summit (pictured above), which convened health care leaders from across the state to identify gaps and opportunities related to health care in rural areas. This is the first wide-scale effort to address this pressing need. The Institute will soon report out to the group with a summary of their recommendations, and a group of volunteers from among the participants will work to begin implementing some of those recommendations and identifying other partners to join for another summit in late 2017 or early 2018. This effort has the potential to provide higher quality and more access to care for our state’s rural populations, all through the power of collaboration and cooperation.

There’s lots more to come in 2017 for the Institute, including our Art in its Natural State competition, which kicked off in February, and our annual performance of the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre. We’re relieved that the March Madness is behind us and are ready to take on the next challenges.

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