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Historic Theaters Conference to lift up ‘artistic lifeblood of community’

Historic Theaters Conference to lift up ‘artistic lifeblood of community’

PETIT JEAN MOUNTAIN, Ark. (May 17, 2017) — Historic theaters are far more than old buildings that represent a bygone era. For many small towns, they remain important centers of artistic activity.

That concept is the theme behind the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference, which will be held Thursday, Aug. 10, through Friday, Aug. 11, at the Institute on Petit Jean Mountain. The Rockefeller Institute is partnering with the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Arkansas Arts Council and the City of Morrilton to present the conference.

“Historic theaters are often the artistic lifeblood of a community, and there are many ways to leverage their influence and preserve their future,” said Janet Harris, director of programs for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. “We look forward to sharing some of those strategies and re-energizing the efforts of those who care about historic theaters in Arkansas and in our neighboring states.”

The conference will bring in outside speakers to discuss a variety of topics, including innovative ways to utilize historic theaters that engage communities in new ways and also contribute to a theater’s sustainability. On this topic, the Rockefeller Institute will lead by example with a special art display that will be announced in the coming weeks.

Other topics include fundraising, marketing, preservation and more. In addition to hearing from key experts, the conference will include ample opportunities for those working on and passionate about historic theaters to network and share success stories.

“Historic theaters are frequently an important piece of a downtown renaissance,” said Stacy Hurst, Department of Arkansas Heritage director. “We feel this is an opportunity to help communities learn the value these historic theaters hold as resources for redevelopment and community revitalization.”

The conference is open to anyone who is interested in historic theaters, community arts programs and/or historic preservation. Admission for the conference, which covers registration, meals and lodging at the Rockefeller Institute’s premiere conference center, is $75 per person. After one person has registered representing a historic theater, community and/or arts organization, each additional person representing that same entity will be discounted to $50.

For more information, a conference agenda and a link for registration, visit www.rockefellerinstitute.org/theaters.

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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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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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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Landowners workshop to highlight income diversity potential for timber producers

PETIT JEAN MOUNTAIN, Ark. (Dec. 13, 2016) — A one-day workshop for timber producers and other landowners will be held at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain on Thursday, March 9. The workshop will cover a variety of topics, all related to helping landowners diversify their land’s income potential.

The workshop represents a partnership between the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the Natural Resource Enterprise program at Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. Supporting the workshop are the Arkansas Forestry Association, the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

“This will be the third time we’ve partnered with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service and Mississippi State’s NRE program to hold one of these workshops,” said Janet Harris, director of programs for the Rockefeller Institute. “Our past participants came away from the workshops equipped with fresh ideas about how their land can do more for them. We are excited to partner with these great organizations again.”

Among the scheduled speakers are area landowner Henry Jones; Adam Tullos and Daryl Jones of the Mississippi State University NRE program; Clint Johnson of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission; Becky McPeake and Kyle Cunningham of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service; Matthew Vandiver of JWB Company Inc.; and Nick Livers of Hyden, Miron & Foster, PLLC.

Topics to be covered at the workshop include outdoor business revenue potential and considerations; premises liability and legal considerations; forest management; estate planning; wildlife habitat management; and opportunities to see management prescriptions on a field tour.

“The field tour is always a highlight of these workshops,” Tullos said. “Nothing beats being able to get outdoors and seeing the concepts being discussed applied to real situations.”

This workshop’s focus on timber-producing land is a new angle for workshops held at the Institute.

“Our state is rich with timber land, and many farms that have grazing land or row-crop operations also produce timber,” McPeake said. “This workshop will be a great opportunity for many farmers to learn about things like wildlife management, restoration of native plant communities, estate planning and even the Farm Bill.”

To find more information or to register, go to RockefellerInstitute.org/forestry or contact Program Officer Samantha Evans at 501-727-6257 or sevans@uawri.org.

About Natural Resource Enterprises

The Natural Resource Enterprises program at Mississippi State University is a research and outreach program of the MSU Extension Service, MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

About the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture makes a positive impact for that key industry through the research done by the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and the teaching done by the Cooperative Extension Service. Its mission is to advance the stewardship of natural resources and the environment, cultivate the improvement of agriculture and agribusiness, develop leadership skills and productive citizenship among youth and adults, enhance economic security and financial responsibility among the citizens of the state, ensure a safe, nutritious food supply, improve the quality of life in communities across Arkansas, and strengthen Arkansas families. You'll find the Division in all 75 Arkansas counties, on five university campuses, at five research and extension centers and at eight branch experiment stations.

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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Entrepreneurship expert to speak at Uncommon Communities

PETIT JEAN MOUNTAIN, Ark. (Oct. 21, 2016) — The keynote address for the November session of Uncommon Communities will be delivered by Steve Radley, president and CEO of NetWork Kansas.

Radley’s presentation, “The Entrepreneurship Edge: Creating a More Entrepreneurial Community,” will take place from noon to 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain.

Radley’s address is open to the public and free of charge, though advance registration is required. Lunch can be purchased during registration.

Radley began his career in the private sector as the 28th employee of technology startup Brite Voice Systems, which grew from a worth of $6 million to more than $175 million. Since then, Radley has co-owned two businesses and serves on boards and advisory councils for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and various centers for entrepreneurship at higher education universities across the Midwest. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Wichita State University and a Master of Arts in Christian ministry from Friends University.

“Too often we get locked in to thinking about economic development as trying to attract the next super project,” said Janet Harris, director of programs for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. “Steve Radley will bring a refreshing perspective and key insight into the concept of ‘economic gardening,’ or how we grow our own success through entrepreneurialism.”

According to its website, “NetWork Kansas is devoted to the growth of entrepreneurship and small businesses throughout the state of Kansas. Our mission is to promote an entrepreneurial environment by providing a central portal that connects entrepreneurs and small business owners with the right resources—Expertise, Education and Economic Resources—when they are needed most. In pursuit of this mission, we partner with well-respected business development organizations and educational institutions that work with entrepreneurs and small business owners who have the vision and potential to succeed. The result is a seamless system that accelerates economic and community development in Kansas.”

To register or to learn more, go to www.rockefellerinstitute.org/uncommon or contact Program Officer Cary Tyson at ctyson@uawri.org.

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.

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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'Together we can become worthy of the moment'

Working at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and living atop Petit Jean Mountain, I am blessed with easy access to some of the prettiest scenic views in Arkansas. I can’t help but think that the picturesque vistas looking westward off of Petit Jean’s broad plateau is part of what kept Winthrop Rockefeller in Arkansas.

But Rockefeller’s view of Arkansas went well beyond his recognition of its natural beauty. From his farm, home and office on Petit Jean, he could see not just the physical attributes of the Arkansas River Valley, he cast a vision for the future of a state that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, was hanging in the balance.

That vision led him into politics, and 50 years ago today, he was sworn in as the 37th governor of the state of Arkansas.

A lot has changed in Arkansas in 50 years, and much of the positive change that has happened here can be traced back to the two terms that Winthrop Rockefeller served as governor.

Today I was privileged to sit in the gallery as Gov. Asa Hutchinson delivered his State of the State address to a joint assembly of the Arkansas Legislature. At the suggestion of our director of programs, Janet Harris, we reached out to the governor’s office to remind them that the State of the State address happened to fall on the monumental anniversary of Winthrop Rockefeller’s inauguration.

Gov. Hutchinson opened his address with a quote from Rockefeller’s inaugural speech:

“It is true that you have been allotted an unusual moment in the history of Arkansas, as have I … a moment subject to special scrutiny … laden with special challenges … and rich with special opportunities. I believe that together we can become worthy of the moment.”

Hutchinson followed that quote with a charge to the Legislature: “Today, we have our own moment in history, and we can only be worthy of this moment if we work together.”

Commitment to a collaborative approach to problem-solving was a hallmark of not just Winthrop Rockefeller’s administration, but his entire life. I was proud to hear that sentiment echoed 50 years from the time he first took office.

I was also struck by some of the parallels between the two governors’ priorities. Hutchinson today spoke of the need for more efficiency in government. This was also a priority of Rockefeller, who dramatically reduced the total number of state agencies during his tenure as governor.

Hutchinson touted recent economic development efforts throughout the state, citing Sig Sauer in Jacksonville, Sun Paper in Arkadelphia, Metova in Conway, Mars Petcare in Fort Smith, FMH Conveyors in Jonesboro and J.B. Hunt in Rogers. Before running for governor, Rockefeller served as the chair of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, a precursor to today’s Economic Development Commission. He helped usher in more than 600 new industries in Arkansas, resulting in more than $250 million in added salaries.

I’d like to think that if Gov. Rockefeller could have heard today’s State of the State address, he would be proud to hear how far we’ve come as a state. But he would also roll up his sleeves and prepare for the work yet to be done.

A mentor once told me that if I wanted to truly make a difference in my life, I needed to become a part of something that would outlive me. He also suggested that if we hope to see our work completed, we simply have not asked big enough questions. Winthrop Rockefeller personified this philosophy and dared to ask big questions. He took on challenges that he knew he would not live to see conquered.

As I reflect on the work of the Institute and on the indelible legacy of Winthrop Rockefeller on this important anniversary, I am inspired by his accomplishments, but also by his heart and his approach—which was to engage and empower others and to encourage them to aim high toward answering the big questions.

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Outside the box and into the mud

Pulling up to Tommy and Susan Conder’s farm just outside Judsonia, there’s little at first glance that makes it stand out from the countless other farms that dot Arkansas’ landscape.

But not far beyond the pastures where the Conders’ cattle grazes is a challenge waiting to be conquered.

A few years back, Tommy and Susan attended a Natural Resource Enterprise workshop in Stuttgart. Put on by the NRE program at Mississippi State University, the workshop was designed to spark the imaginations of farmers and landowners as to how their land could do more to make money than simply produce livestock, row crops or timber.

The wheels began turning for Tommy and Susan, who quickly recognized that there was a lot more they could do with the 800 acres of land in White County that they and one of Tommy’s sons own.

“Some people at that workshop,” Tommy said, “they were doing corn mazes and things like that on their land. We thought, ‘We’ve got other stuff we could do.’”

That “other stuff” eventually became an 8-kilometer obstacle course that spans a large portion of the Conders’ farm – most of it land not suitable for grazing, but perfect for mud pits, climbing walls, hay bale obstacles and water slides, just to name a few of the course’s features.

The Beast

Tommy and Susan recently took me and Program Officer Samantha Evans on a tour of the course, and although the temperatures were a fair bit cooler than they are in May when they hold their big annual competition – Mud Mayhem – it was easy to get a sense of the type of atmosphere that exists on race day.

“We really love people laughing and having a good time,” Tommy said.

But all the fun and laughter requires quite a bit of careful planning. It takes a staff of 20-30 to make the race happen, and they are trained for several weeks leading up to the event. Susan takes care of the planning and logistics - hiring and training folks from the surrounding area - while Tommy focuses on building and managing the course itself.

“I’m not a businessman,” Tommy said. “I’m a worker.”

Susan agreed and praised Tommy for his resourcefulness in constructing the course.

“If I can describe it to Tommy, he can build it,” she said.

The finish

Eight hundred acres is no small piece of property, and the Conders have imaginations big enough to fill it all and then some. Tommy admitted that in the five years they’ve held Mud Mayhem, they have yet to break even. But that’s only because they keep building and adding onto the course.

“We’ve sunk quite a bit of money into it,” Tommy said. “Would I go back and change that? No. We can still see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

And they’re finding new and creative ways to diversify the potential of what they’ve already built. Tommy explained that most of the obstacles on the course are mobile. They plan to load a number of them up on trailers next year and set up a course at Portfest in Jacksonport. They’re looking at other opportunities to take their obstacles on the road, too.

But more important to the Conders than finding ways to make money off their land is the way they’ve been able to give back.

A few years ago, Tommy’s son Sean returned home after serving a tour in Afghanistan as part of the Air Force. Tommy explained how Sean’s unit was involved in combat and survived life-threatening situations.

“They came back pretty spooked,” Tommy said. “We wanted to find a way to help them feel normal again.”

So Tommy and Susan organized their first Heroes R&R, an experience they have since expanded to include members of the military, firefighters, law enforcement officers and health care workers – all those who serve on the front lines of emergency situations. The Conders organize excursions for these groups, which may involve camping, fishing, trap shooting or the obstacle course. They utilize the eight-bedroom lodge they’ve built for these experiences, and the results have been amazing.

After that first experience with Sean’s Air Force unit, Sean’s squadron commander told Tommy, “This has brought our squadron back together.”

Tommy and Susan are exploring grant money that is available to support the excursions, hoping that it will help them expand what they offer.

Parachute

For what looks like a standard 350-head cattle operation from a distance, Tommy and Susan Conder have built something spectacular. And it all started with the spark of an idea at a workshop for landowners.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is partnering with Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service to present a similar workshop here at the Institute on Thursday, March 9. The workshop, which is supported by the Arkansas Forestry Association, the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, will be geared toward landowners who produce timber, but all landowners are welcome and stand to gain some knowledge about income diversification, land management, the Farm Bill, legal issues and more.

Learn more about the Landowners Workshop by clicking here.

You can learn more about Mud Mayhem here or on the race’s Facebook page here.

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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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