Several times a year, the WRF team ventures out en masse to connect with and learn from communities across the state. This post is the first in an occasional series chronicling what we're learning about the diversity of opportunity and challenges across our great state. We will share as much as we can, but if something peaks your interest, we encourage you to get on the road and see it for yourself!
Alpena teaches us that local investment in a creative economy, leveraging available resources, and ensuring students receive an excellent education can boost a rural community's economic growth and hopes for the future.
If you drive though Harrison, Arkansas, on Highway 65 heading north and make a quick left before you hit the Missouri border, you will end up in Alpena. Don’t let the six-foot wooden grizzly bear at the edge of the tiny downtown scare you. As a matter of fact, it’s a great reason to stop and shop. Alpena, a town of only about 400 souls, has worked hard over the last decade to create a small haven for local craftsmen and women designed to entice some of the 10,000 drivers a day that pass by to stop, enjoy the local flavor, and spend a few dollars.
In early June, our Board, staff, and partners toured Alpena before sitting with residents over lunch in City Hall. Residents shared how the community had changed in the past 20 years: new businesses had opened, like the Alpena Chainsaw Art gallery–home of the scary bear waiting to be taken home by an interested passerby–and the local public schools had improved educational outcomes for area students, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. However, residents shared their concerns about an antiquated sewage system, frustration with an aging infrastructure, and a gnawing fear that the state would put in a byway that would divert traffic away from downtown Alpena.
Creating a Prosperous Future
After learning what had changed in Alpena's past, we traveled through time together 20 years into the community's future, where we found a great number of opportunities.
Here’s what this small group of residents saw in their future:
Residents would organize themselves to advocate for state resources and policies that would improve infrastructure and stimulate economic growth
As the community continues to educate students to succeed in STEM fields, they would employ local students to help use technology to redefine how area businesses operate and develop innovative new career opportunities
With improved infrastructure, greater access to wealth for businesses, and more employment opportunities, the population would grow
Alpena residents would also come together with other rural communities to share resources and knowledge
How much brighter would Alpena's future be if they created it with mutual support from neighboring communities like Green Forest–which has a thriving poultry industry–and others?
Opportunities identified during our conversation in Alpena
Still looking into the future, we could also see what challenges might arise. Without coordinated action from residents, policy decisions would prohibit Alpena from continuing to move forward on its upward path toward increased prosperity and improved educational outcomes for area students. If Alpena did not take action to improve infrastructure, increase access to broadband Internet and technologies that could boost business, or support entrepreneurship, the community would become stagnant in employment opportunities and population growth. Students could also move to a nearby urban area, which would reduce or eliminate the community's workforce. In time, the community would lack the resources and resident engagement needed to continue providing an exceptional education for students.
Challenges identified during our conversation in Alpena
Sharing Knowledge to Build Rural Communities
We ended our conversation with a reflection and a shared call to action.
The reflection: Alpena is not unlike other rural communities throughout Arkansas. An entrepreneurial spirit and determination that "this place matters" bring folks together to move the community toward a bright and exciting future. However, the community has limited resources and residents must persistently fight to build and maintain infrastructure.
The call to action: We as a foundation along with our partners must continue to share what we learn from communities like Alpena because there are so many similarities between this place and others throughout Arkansas. By sharing stories like this from communities, we can draw a roadmap together from where folks are today, where they want to be in the future, and what blockades or pitfalls we'll need to avoid along the way. Alpena specifically teaches us that local investment in a creative economy, leveraging available resources, and ensuring students receive an excellent education can boost a rural community's economic growth and hopes for the future.