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.”