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Training new leaders (at home and elsewhere)

I will be driving down to DeGray Lake Resort State Park later today to speak at the graduation ceremony for the Leadership Clark County program. There will be 24 graduates of Leadership Clark County, which is in its second year of existence.

I’m a huge proponent of leadership programs. In a small state like Arkansas, where personal connections are vital, these programs allow a new generation of leaders to make contacts and learn about parts of their city, county and state they might not have learned about otherwise.

Such programs also allow these emerging leaders to come up with fresh ideas and, hopefully, begin making some of those ideas a reality.

When I was at the Delta Regional Authority, we created an eight-state program called the Delta Leadership Institute. The governors of the eight states in which we worked (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois) each were able to name four people to the program. The federal co-chairman, appointed by the president, could name another four people in order to round out a class of 36.

I also participated in the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Arkansas program, and it proved to be an outstanding experience.

The Leadership Clark County initiative is an outgrowth of the Clark County Strategic Plan, a countywide effort that set goals and then began implementing various action steps.

Back in 2006, I was visiting with the president of one of the state’s major associations. This man, who had once lived in Southwest Arkansas but now lives in the booming city of Conway, said something that startled me. He knew I was an Arkadelphia native and mentioned that he had recently been in my hometown.

“Arkadelphia is really a town in decline, isn’t it?” he said.

I was working with the DRA at the time, a job that took me into struggling Delta towns in several states on an almost daily basis. I can tell you all about towns in decline.

But I had never thought of Clark County in the same way. To me, Arkadelphia will always be one of this state’s garden spots — a beautiful old town with two universities, two rivers, interstate highway access, a popular lake just down the road, history, charm and character.

The banner of the Southern Standard weekly newspaper, which no longer exists, once proclaimed Arkadelphia to be the Athens of Arkansas. I had a pretty idyllic childhood there. Yet I was determined that on my next trip home to Arkadelphia, I would try to view the city as an outsider. Mentally taking on that role, I saw many things I didn’t like. These were things that to the outsider made this look much more like a shrinking Delta town than a thriving university town.

That’s why Clark County’s strategic planning effort, which was just cranking up at the time, has been so important. A lot of people suddenly were coming together back in 2006 to address the lack of growth and economic development in the county. I wrote a guest column for the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia, and I knew it had struck the proper nerves when I was criticized by some of the political powers there.

That was good.

It showed people were reading. A debate had been started.

Having viewed firsthand what a similar strategic planning effort had done for Phillips County, I asked Phil Baldwin of Southern Bancorp in Arkadelphia if such a planning effort could begin in Clark County. Southern Bancorp had been instrumental in getting the strategic plan off the ground in Phillips County, which started with far more severe economic problems than Clark County. And Clark County, not Phillips County, is the home base of Southern Bancorp.

As usual, Phil was ahead of me.

He responded, “It’s interesting you mentioned it because we’re planning to do a strategic plan for Clark County.”

Having lived away from Arkadelphia for the past quarter of a century, I’ve watched from afar as the city has responded to major challenges. When Reynolds Metals Co. shut down its Patterson Plant in the 1980s, the business leaders worked to bring in new jobs. Within a few years, Clark County had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.

In the late 1990s, though, things slowed down again.

When the tragic tornado changed the face of Arkadelphia on March 1, 1997, people responded. I’ll never forget something President Clinton told me on Tuesday, March 4, 1997, after he had finished his walking tour of what remained of downtown Arkadelphia. A reception was being held at Elk Horn Bank even though the bank still had no electricity.

“A lot of towns would never recover from this blow,” the president told me that afternoon. “But with two universities and strong banks, Arkadelphia is better situated to recover from something like this than most towns in the southern half of the state.”

The president was right. Arkadelphia did build back in those areas that had been destroyed. But the growth was not what it should be in a place with two well-respected universities.

So what will I tell the group tonight?

1. Don’t let this be the end. Go out there and truly be leaders in the years ahead. In too many Arkanasas communities, people sit back and wait for elected officials — the mayor, members of the city board, the county judge, members of the quorum court, legislators — to do something for them. Don’t wait on them. The communities that are thriving in Arkansas have strong grassroots support from the business and civic sectors. Simply waiting on government to do something is a recipe for rot.

2. Play to your strengths. The county shouldn’t stop trying to attract manufacturing jobs, but I see too many towns that spend way too much time chasing jobs that likely are headed to Mexico, China and India anyway. Arkadelphia’s strength will always be the fact that it’s home to Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. I firmly believe Arkadelphia’s niche in this century should be as an attractive Southern college town — a smaller version of Oxford, Miss., if you will. The goal should be to position it as the educational, cultural, literary and artistic center of south Arkansas. For college students, quality of life is now more important than ever. If properly executed, such an effort could also attract artists, writers and others looking for just such an oasis offering culture, a low cost of living and a safe environment.

3. Try harder to attract retirees. High-income retirees put much into an area’s economy with their need for medical care, their spending in restaurants, the time they have for volunteering, etc. They pay property taxes to support the public schools but don’t have children in those public schools. College towns across the country have become increasingly attractive to high-income retirees due to the steady diet of concerts, lectures, plays and sporting events that colleges provide. Arkadelphia should be perfectly positioned to take advantage of this trend.

4. The city should also take better advantage of its old houses and other historic sites. Old river towns such as Camden and Helena don’t have the benefit of being home to four-year universities. And college towns like Jonesboro, Magnolia and Monticello aren’t historic old river towns. Arkadelphia is both — a college town and a historic river town. Play to that strength.

5. Arkadelphia should aim for a bookstore, some art galleries, a music store and some additional restaurants and coffeehouses downtown. The vision should be that of a funky, somewhat artsy place with loft apartments on the second floors of downtown buildings. I’ll urge the emerging leaders to visit the downtown square at Oxford and then envision a modified version of that for downtown Arkadelphia.

6. These leaders should make it their goal to create the cleanest county in the state. There should be strong Adopt-A-Street programs across the county. I remember as a Boy Scout distributing free dogwood trees that had been donated by the Ross Foundation. How about something like an organized effort to plant thousands of new dogwood trees while encouraging people to keep them watered and healthy? Eventually, the area could be promoted as the Dogwood Capital of the South, yet another draw for tourists and retirees.

7. Finally, something I advocate for every community from Little Rock on down: Strict code enforcement. No excuses. No lenience. Abandoned houses should be torn down quickly. Absentee owners should be forced to adhere to the codes and brought to justice quickly when they fail to do so.

Maybe there are lessons here for other towns in Arkansas when it comes to playing to your strengths, cleaning up the town, etc.

Maybe not.

At any rate, it will be good to be home, among friends, talking about helping a place I love finally achieve its full potential.

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