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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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Surprise award

The Institute is extremely proud that Program Officer Samantha Evans was honored with the Arkansas Community Development Society’s New Professional Award. Samantha has been actively involved in community development, especially in Arkansas, for most of her professional years.

This past Friday, two representatives from the Society - including Whitney Horton, pictured above on the left with Sam on the right - came to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute to surprise Sam with the award. Sam was very touched, as you can see on our Facebook page.

Sam comes from five years at Main Street Arkansas serving as its assistant director. In this position, she worked with numerous small- and medium-sized communities throughout the state of Arkansas where she worked to help interested citizens revitalize their downtown.

Sam served both on the board and as peer-elected chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals of Little Rock. Under her leadership as the board chair, Little Rock was selected to host the annual Young Nonprofit Professional National Conference. It was a very successful event highlighting Change Through Head, Heart and Hands. The Change Through Head, Heart and Hands was a national nonprofit leadership conference that in August 2015 brought 150 young, emerging leaders from throughout the nation to Little Rock. Sam played a strong role in promoting central Arkansas tourism for attendees, further deepening the investment and experience attendees had while expanding the event’s economic impact.

She created the monthly speaker series “Coffee with an Expert,” which brings executive directors across various sectors together to speak with YNPN members.  She also developed a fundraising plan to increase membership and sponsorship for the local organization.

Before working for Main Street Arkansas, Sam was the planning technician for the city of North Little Rock for two years. Originally from Perry County, Sam, now of Conway, worked with her home community to help save the Rosenwald School in Bigelow, once listed as one of Arkansas’ Most Endangered Places. She’s written articles on a variety of issues concerning community development and planning including this one.

Sam holds a Professional Community and Economic Developer Certification from the Community Development Council. She has a master’s degree from the Humphry School of Public Affairs in City/Urban Planning with an emphasis in Community and Regional Planning.

She was selected as a Krusell Community Development Fellow and MacArthur Fellow in 2007 as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. During her fellowships she worked with Model Cities CDC, a community-based development organization, and CommonBond, a large affordable housing development and management organization. Her placement experiences included: assisting with funding applications for tax credits; marketing research; data management and analysis; predevelopment planning and funding applications; assistance with façade improvement program; help with real estate closings. 

Sam is a regular speaker at conferences and events, including for the Community Development Institute, the National Main Streets Conference and innumerable local community sessions.

She received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science. In a nice Rockefeller connection, Spelman College, which was founded as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminar, later changed in honor of Laura Spelman, John D. Rockefeller’s wife, and her parents, who were longtime activists in the anti-slavery movement. 

I had the privilege of working with Sam at a previous job, and I was thrilled when we got to be colleagues again here at the Institute. We’re very proud of her and look forward to seeing how her talent moves our programs forward in the future.

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Dr. Ruth Hawkins to deliver keynote at Uncommon Communities session

PETIT JEAN MOUNTAIN, Ark. (Jan. 9, 2017) — Renowned heritage tourism expert Dr. Ruth Hawkins will deliver the keynote address at the January session of Uncommon Communities. Hawkins will deliver her keynote address at 12:30 p.m. Friday at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain.

Admission to the keynote address is free and open to the public, though advance registration is required. Those interested in registering should visit https://ruthhawkinsuncommoncommunities.eventbrite.com.

Hawkins is the director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University. In this role, she has developed and directed the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center at Piggott, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza, the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village and the Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash.

Hawkins’ presentation, titled “Using Your Community’s Heritage for Fun and Profit,” will cover ways in which small communities can use their own unique history to drive tourism and economic development.

“Dr. Hawkins is known throughout Arkansas as a leader in heritage tourism and historic preservation,” said Janet Harris, director of programs for the Rockefeller Institute. “The work she has done in northeast Arkansas and the Arkansas Delta has been transformative for those communities. We look forward to drawing from her insights into this important aspect of community and economic development.”

Uncommon Communities is a community and economic development initiative that provides participants, chosen by their respective communities, the opportunity to attend five carefully crafted sessions at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute over the course of a year. Each of the five counties in the pilot group – Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell – is invited to send six participants to the sessions, which are held for a day and a half, every other month. The sessions were designed based on feedback from the counties when asked what skills and resources they needed to accomplish their goals and include: community leadership development, economic development in the new economy; tourism, marketing and branding; quality of place and placemaking; and exemplary communities moving forward. Each session brings renowned speakers from across the United States plus throughout Arkansas. In addition, many of the sessions are interactive and give participants the opportunity to work in groups and learn from other participating counties.

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 is supported by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, and by Entergy.

 

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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Where others saw a barn, she saw a story

It doesn’t just take an extraordinary amount of vision to think you can take a rundown barn and turn it into a top tourist destination; it takes an epic amount of work and no small dash of chutzpah. Neither was a problem for Dr. Ruth Hawkins when she took on the project of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott, Ark. Now if you’re a film buff, you’ll know that Piggott is where Eliza Kazan shot A Face in the Crowd starring Andy Griffith (before his eponymous television show), but in fact its place in history was cemented much earlier as the home of Earnest Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Papa would visit Piggott in the 1930s, and the family turned the barn into a writing studio for Hemingway. It’s there where he wrote much of his epic A Farewell to Arms.

The story of the community and the site needed a champion. Locals knew of the visits and the writing, but sometimes it takes an outsider to help a place appreciate long overlooked jewels. That’s who Ruth Hawkins is – the kind of person who can see things others can’t. Where others saw an old barn, Ruth saw a story. She knows that heritage means business, but it has to be shined and made ready for the public. Today, the Hemingway Pfeiffer House is a destination for tourists all around. It’s the best example of the many, many jewels she’s found and cultivated throughout her beloved Arkansas Delta. It’s the best because she wasn’t simply satisfied in making the place a tourist destination. No, she had to go on and become a Hemingway scholar, presenting at conferences across the world and authoring the only book on Pauline, Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow.

She’s the driving force of the restoration and major storyteller behind Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, the only remaining antebellum plantation home on the Mississippi; she’s responsible for the Southern Tennent Farmers’ Museum in Tyronza, which tells the story of sharecropping and the organized farm labor movement; she is responsible for helping keep alive the story of Arkansas’ Japanese Internment Camp at Rohwer, where future Star Trek star George Takei was imprisoned; as well as the Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. There’s more. She’s a member of the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, Arkansas Tourism Person of the Year, she’s won a National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award as well as Preserve Arkansas’s Parker Westbrook Lifetime Achievement Award. The list goes on. If you want to learn how to capitalize on the heritage of your community, there is no better person in the world to learn from than Ruth Hawkins. She’ll be at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Friday from noon to 2 p.m. Get your tickets at https://ruthhawkinsuncommoncommunities.eventbrite.com.

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Out of many, one

In September, I went into the first session of Leadership Conway County not quite sure what to expect. It started with a two-day retreat with a group of people whom I had never met. I was curious as to what we would be learning as well as doing for the betterment of Conway County. After just three sessions into our 10 month program, I have learned more about the needs of our community, as well as what our group wants and desires from these classes. And, unexpectedly, I have learned more about myself in the process.

The Leadership Conway County Class of 2017 (or LCC 2.0 … we do not have an official name at the moment) is quite a unique group. The members range from a senior in high school to the chief of police; a Vietnam veteran-turned-city councilman to a man who participates in timber sports in his spare time; school teachers to a conference food service manager. We all see different areas of the community, which helps to give a unique perspective on the needs of the citizens. The classes so far have ranged from a jovial getting-to-know-each-other retreat to an emotional session on what makes a great leader. And we are really just getting started, being only three sessions into the class.

At our first meeting, after introductions, I learned a little about the history of Conway County, including the importance and changes that came by Winthrop Rockefeller moving to the county. Some of the story I had already heard, but being able to hear some personal vignettes made the influence more real. Jerry Smith, our interim leader (he emphasizes the interim part), put together a great two-day program, which helped us not only get to know each other, but aided us in defining what we felt were the needs and wants of our community. The next session, which started as an interactive exercise on communication, became a discussion on the different types of citizens within our community and what ways we can work with all of them to help get things done. Since the majority of the members have lived in Conway County either all of their lives or at least more than half of their life, I was able to interject my experiences not being from the area. Our latest session was spent hearing from two speakers on the importance of leadership and what makes someone an effective person. I learned the most about myself during this session. And by knowing more about me, I can use what I have to help others. The other members are not necessarily involved for the same reasons, but our ultimate goal is shared: We all want our county to grow. We want it to be a place we are proud to call home, a place to raise a family, a place the residents want to stay.

I am honored to be involved with this group of citizens who are all wanting to get to work on helping their community grow. Though we are still finding our footing, the Leadership Conway County Class of 2017 is sure to spend the next few months getting things rolling in the community.

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Let's talk about goats

By all accounts, the inaugural Arkansas Goat Festival in Perryville, held earlier this month, was a smashing success. And really, how could it not have been? There were goats on parade. People in goat costumes. Goats in people costumes. And all other sorts of things goat.

We've gotten to know festival organizer Sarah French, co-owner of Crescent Creek Farm, through her involvement in the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute's Uncommon Communities initiative. We touched base with Sarah for a post-Goat Festival check-in.

Q: I know this idea was sparked from the Uncommon Communities initiative, but how exactly did it come about?

A: Liz van Dalsem and I were talking about events for "Saturday on the square," and I thought, "how much fun would it be to have a goat parade? Oh! Oh! What if the goats were in costumes? And we could have goat X and goat Y," and it grew from there.

Q: What were your expectations for this year’s event, and were those expectations met?

A: I thought this project was pretty audacious on so many levels, and "expectations" isn't the right word to describe it - I would call them hopes. And since I had no precedent to judge anything on, I could only go based on social media and face-to-face feedback I got. I really just hoped people would come. And people came. I felt like 500 people would have been "successful" and we more than doubled that ( coincidentally, we also doubled the population of Perryville for the day!) . I was very relieved and thrilled that the buzz on social media actually did translate into people getting in their cars and making the drive. So I guess the answer to your question is yes.

Q: What were your favorite moments or “snapshots” from the event?

A: That day is mostly a blur for me, but seeing all the people and so much energy and happy attendees and GOATS IN COSTUMES ... dreams do come true! 

Q: How do you see the event expanding next year?

A: We have lots of ideas for next year, some new additions to the lineup and some retouching of what we did this year. I don't have details on how it will expand, but we know more now than we did before and it's only going to be better in 2017.

Q: How can Perry County capitalize on the success of this event?

A: There has been talk (not necessarily in official circles, but talk none the less) of making a goat-play structure at the city park. Like some cities have dog parks. We could have the only goat park in the country. So I do hope there is movement on that, and I will support it any way I can. Now that it's clear people will actually come, we can position ourselves to be ready for tourists, to advertise how fun and family-friendly we are, to entertain goat lovers from all over the country!

Q: Any details you can share about next year's event?

A: I don't have much information to offer, except to please block your calendars for the first Saturday of October, 2017. The "Second Annual" Arkansas Goat Festival will be Oct. 7, 2017. This time, we will have a committee, and we'll start planning in January instead of August! This gives me great optimism for a bigger, better, more well-fed event.

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Creating a culture of cooperation in Conway County

It was 1996 when Dr. Vaughn Grisham first came to Conway County. He came at the behest of Barry McKuin, then of the Chamber of Commerce, now on the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute board, having heard Vaughn speak on his belief that community development precedes and works in tandem with economic development. That partnership was prophetic as it helped prepare Conway County in facing some of its most significant economic challenges with the loss of a number of major employers.

Fade to 2016 and Dr. Grisham has returned. Working in partnership with the Institute, Breakthrough Solutions and UALR’s Institute of Government, Vaughn helped develop the curriculum for the Uncommon Communities initiative working to improve the quality of life and economic climate in Conway, Pope, Perry, Van Buren and Yell counties.

2016 also brings with it the return of Leadership Conway County. Dormant for about a decade, participating in the initiative and working again with Dr. Grisham via the Uncommon Communities initiative inspired a group of leaders to decide that resurrecting Leadership Conway County is a necessary step in preparing the county for 21st century economic development.

Kickoff began in September and will continue monthly for nine sessions, including an overnight retreat. The session topics include: Teambuilding, Change, Group Dynamics, Diversity, Leadership Development, Ethics, Historical Perspective of Morrilton and Conway County, infrastructure tour, community development and trust building, economic tours, and a poverty simulation followed by the graduation ceremony.

The Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce is leading the way in producing the updated program. Col. Joe Dowdy, USMC (Ret.) will be the keynote speaker at both the fall chamber banquet as well as the facilitator of the session on leadership. Col. Dowdy spoke at the kickoff of Year I of Uncommon Communities, and his powerful message was key in reminding the core committee how important leadership development is to community improvement.

More information about Leadership Conway County is available on the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce website.

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Poised to lead Arkansas into a new era of innovation, Winrock International and Innovation Hub join forces

“Our challenge in the years ahead will be to adapt our agriculture, our government services, our health care system and our industry to our changing world without forsaking our values. In other words, let’s embrace the energy of change and all the opportunity it brings without forsaking our foundation. … My top priority is to grow the economy of this state, to create jobs, and for Arkansas to enter a time of sustained economic power and influence.” — Gov. Asa Hutchinson, during his Inaugural Address, January 13, 2015

When Gov. Hutchinson summarizes his vision for Arkansas, time and time again, he comes back to economic development and innovation. While our state as a whole is arguably playing catchup in these areas, two Arkansas-born nonprofits have recently joined forces to create a dynamic model of innovation that is poised to have statewide — as well as national and global — impact.

In June, Winrock International, an international development organization that traces its roots to a charitable endeavor established by Winthrop Rockefeller, and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub announced they were combining. Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Innovation Hub, was named senior director of U.S. Programs at Winrock.

“Gov. Rockefeller wanted Arkansas to be a place where innovative solutions are developed and tested for the rest of the country and the world,” Sabin told me recently. “This is in line with that vision.

“Winrock is well established as an innovator in international development. The Hub has created new models of innovation that overlap and align with what Winrock is already doing.”

Sabin tells me that, as far as he knows, there is nothing exactly like the Innovation Hub anywhere. He said he traveled around the country to observe and learn from a variety of entrepreneur and maker spaces. For one, from the very beginning, the Innovation Hub has included programs not only for adults, but also young people, which is imperative from a talent-development perspective. But that’s not the only difference that stands out.

“The Innovation Hub is unique in that it combines maker, entrepreneur, art and design spaces … all in one place,” Sabin said. Additionally, “most of these (spaces around the country) are in the largest urban areas. We’re trying to bring this model into rural areas (in Arkansas).”

In fact, Sabin said he is excited about a project that Winrock will be unveiling soon in the Arkansas Delta. The venture, which has yet to be announced, will be one of the first opportunities to establish an example of how all the components of the Innovation Hub can be integrated into a set of solutions for rural communities. The effort, Sabin told me, is expected to “pilot new strategies for economic, workforce and rural development in the Delta.”

But the impact has the potential to resonate globally as part of Winrock’s international solutions. “Much of the work (of the Innovation Hub) is applicable to developing countries,” Sabin said, where there is a growing need “to do more with less.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Winrock International/Innovation Hub merger announcement.

The growing potential of this new collaboration has already generated excitement. Gov. Hutchinson spoke at the press conference in June when Winrock announced it was combining with the Innovation Hub. Here’s what Hutchinson had to say that day:

“This will spur real economic and community growth in our state and signals that Arkansas’ impact on the world will continue to grow. I’m especially intrigued by what this could mean in terms of workforce training, manufacturing, agriculture and, especially, the Arkansas knowledge industry.”

Already the Innovation Hub can point to the success of HubX Life Sciences, the state’s first privately funded health care accelerator program. The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub partnered with Baptist Health, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and The Iron Yard to attract seven innovative health care start-ups. The benefits, however, stretch far beyond the health care sector.

“We’re creating new models (that can benefit multiple sectors),” Sabin told me. “If successful, we’re going to change the face of community development and economic development in a huge part of our state.”

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Cuba's contradictions

Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Executive Director Dr. Marta Loyd and Director of Programs Janet Harris traveled to Havana in late June as part of an educational and trade mission organized by the Arkansas World Trade Center. Their purpose in visiting Cuba was to learn more about educational partnerships with the Cuban people as the U.S. continues to normalize relations with the island country. This is one of a series of articles reflecting on their visit. 

The plane ride from Miami to Havana only takes 45 minutes. In fact, Cuba’s capital city is a mere 106 miles from Key West, making it one of our closest neighbors. Yet Cuba remains a mystery to most Americans who have been restricted from regular travel to the island for more than 50 years. What we imagined we knew came mostly from books, movies and legend.

Antique cars like this one were the rule, not the exception, in Havana

Stepping onto Cuban soil for the first time, legend comes to life. Antique cars, men in straw fedoras, Che Guevara iconography, salsa music and buildings neglected since the revolution confirm popular stereotypes of a country “frozen in time.” But Cuba’s challenges and obstacles have prepared the country to leapfrog into the 21st century in ways we never expected, and there is much more to their story than stereotype.

While some buildings in Cuba have white-washed facades, many show decades of wear and repair

Partly, Cuba is defined by its contradictions. There’s the island nation neighbor to the south, and the communist country that might as well be on the other side of the world, separated by years of political distrust and broken promises. There’s a whitewashed façade that welcomes tourists, and there’s the broken buildings and machines that Cubans are forced to repair over and over in ingenious ways because they can’t buy anything new. There is the Cuba Fidel Castro dreamed of, and the stark reality that has emerged after 57 years of communist rule. There’s the Cuba we can help, and the one from which we can learn.

Cuba’s energy sector is a good example. We visited the Cuban Ministry of Energy and Mines to learn how they planned to meet the island’s rapidly increasing energy demands. Cuba currently burns crude oil and disperses energy through a system of generators. Through its trading relationship with Russia and more recently, Venezuela, oil has been an abundant and cheap energy source for many years.

Ministry officials recognize that their oil-powered generation system is dirty and inefficient. It also makes Cuba dangerously dependent on its trading partners, as Venezuela’s recent collapse proves.  

So the government’s energy plan calls for a 20 percent increase in renewable energy sources by 2030. Ministry officials are promoting opportunities for foreign investment in wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power, keenly aware that its wise use of natural resources is key to the country’s energy security. Combined with an increased focus on natural gas production, Cuba is paving the way for a cleaner and more efficient system of energy production. Because it is not forced to wean itself from coal, the country is leapfrogging from crude oil to clean energy.

Increasing power plant efficiency, whatever the energy source, will be a priority for the ministry in coming years, a potential opportunity for schools like the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope offering a degree program in power plant technology.

The Cuban agriculture sector is prepared to leapfrog, too, albeit accidentally. The vast majority of Cuba’s farmland is still state-run, but farming cooperatives are on the rise.  Since the Soviet collapse of the 1990s, Cuban farmers have had no access to modern equipment, fertilizers or pesticides. The organic movement in the United States represented a return to natural farming practices by choice. In Cuba, organic farming was born out of necessity. 

Now Cuba’s plant scientists are embracing the organic movement, looking for ways to continue sustainable farming practices and increase yield. If they are successful in improving mechanization, Cuban farmers could be in a position to export organic food to the U.S., provided trade barriers are removed.

For now, though, Cuba faces immediate challenges in feeding its own people. The country’s infrastructure cannot adequately handle transportation of fruits, vegetables and frozen foods. Government farmland lies fallow in many places in the country, farmers lack the facilities and means to grow chickens, and Cubans must import most of their food. 

“Our people do not have enough animal protein in their diet,” said Dr. Yordan Martinez Aguilar of the University of Granma, who is working on a plant extract that could potentially replace antibiotics in poultry production. His hope is to provide a way to grow healthy broilers on the island without the use of antibiotics.

His work is significant and potentially groundbreaking. People like Yordan represent the best of all contradictions in Cuba. Cuban researchers are renowned in fields of medicine, animal science and biotechnology, and we can learn from them. Education is a public benefit free to all of its citizens, and the Cubans we met were very grateful for their educational opportunities and success. 

Still, the country’s challenges and limitations make the Cuban people somewhat isolated.

“We would like it very much if you would lift the blockade,” Yordan quietly remarked in one of our conversations, a stark reminder about his reality and the obstacles we face in engaging with one another. They are obstacles we must overcome if we are to know the Cuban people. They are worth knowing, worth helping and worth learning from.

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