Arkansas Inc. Podcast - Resources for Arkansas' Rural Communities

 May 07, 2019
In this episode of the Arkansas Inc Podcast, host Jeff Moore speaks with Alex Johnston, the Director of Rural Services at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Johnston explains how the Arkansas Rural Services Division supports the state's rural communities, including the Arkansas Rural Community Grant Program, Arkansas Rural Services Block Grant Program, and the upcoming Arkansas Rural Development Conference that will take place May 14 - 16 at the Hot Springs Convention Center


Intro: Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development, with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Jeff Moore: Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. I'm your host Jeff Moore, Executive Vice President of marketing and research for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Jeff Moore: Today our guest is Alex Johnston, who is my colleague at Arkansas Economic Development Commission, or AEDC, as we abbreviate it, where Alex serves as the Director of Rural Services. We're gonna be talking with Alex about the upcoming Rural Development Conference May 14th through the 16th at the Hot Springs Convention Center in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and about some of the other great things that she's doing in our state.

Jeff Moore: So, welcome, Alex.

Alex Johnston: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Jeff.

Jeff Moore: So, before we talk about the Rural Development Conference, which is coming up here shortly in May, I just wanna talk a little bit and let you help us understand more about what the Rural Services division does. Rural is a hard work for me to say, as you can tell. Rural. Rural Services division.

Jeff Moore: So, give us an overview about your division, and how you guys serve the communities in our state.

Alex Johnston: Sure. Our division was started as a single-end department in 1992 under the Governor, Bill Clinton, and it was started to serve as a single point of contact for all of rural Arkansas. At that point, there wasn't anywhere for rural Arkansans to go and find resources or support. Rural by definition to us is 20,000 or less, which is 80% of the state. So when you kind of look at that, that's a large part of the state that really didn't have resources or tools at their fingertips.

Alex Johnston: We started off with some grant programs, and the Rural Community Grant Program was the first one that was started, and it's still around today. We receive state general revenue money for that, it's a matching program. It's very popular and highly successful, we're able to help a lot of rural communities. We've added some programs over the years, the County Fair Program, which is kind of neat, it's one of the only resources for county fairs across the state. We've added the Game and Fish Program in 2015, which is really neat. It's [inaudible 00:02:10] money assessed by game and fish, that goes back in the form of education grants to all 75 counties for all school districts across Arkansas.

Alex Johnston: The Block Grant Program, which we do in partnership with our grants team at AEDC, which does a lot of community centers, fire departments, libraries, storm shelters, walking trails. All of those things you think of that kind of make communities tick, those are the things that we're funding out in these rural areas.

Jeff Moore: Are all communities eligible?

Alex Johnston: Unfortunately, no.

Jeff Moore: Okay.

Alex Johnston: So, on the Game and Fish Program, everyone is eligible, all 75 counties, any school, regardless of population, public, private. But under most of our programs, we have a population limit set of 30,000, and that's mainly set by our commission, because we do get a lot of funding each year from the state, but it is limited. So, we're able to fund 3,000 or less, that doesn't include a population limit for counties. Most of these are gonna be your volunteer fire departments out in the county.

Alex Johnston: Then our County Fair Program, 65 out of 75 counties are eligible, that's a 55,000 or less county population.

Jeff Moore: So, if a community wished to apply for a grant, how does that work?

Alex Johnston: Really all of our applications are listed on our website. They're set up to be very simple, so anyone can fill them out. You don't have to be a trained administrator, you don't have to have any kind of extra training either to fill these out. You mainly just have to have your judge or mayor sign off, your [inaudible 00:03:37] court city council. But it's usually about a three to four page application, a few supporting documents showing us what you're buying, where the match is coming from, any community support, any support from your legislatures. Then showing us exactly what you're going to purchase with those dollars, and then making sure that it falls within the qualification set by the legislature, as to what we can fund.

Alex Johnston: Very simple, we have two to three deadlines each year for each program, and you can just submit those straight to our office. Our office is very hands-on, our grants managers will come to you, look over this application. We have just moved to online applications, super excited about those, just trying to make it as easy as possible for all of our communities.

Jeff Moore: So many communities have benefited that I've come across, many, and you probably have a number of success stories where Rural Services has really kind of provided much needed grants and support for the community, in all of those ways you kind of mentioned there.

Jeff Moore: So, share maybe one or two of kind of those success stories. Kind of what are some that you think of that come to mind?

Alex Johnston: Sure. We have one fire department in rural Dallas County that I've just been made aware of, that their ISO has lowered significantly due to our funds. They have been awarded, through our matching grant, about five times in the last 10 years. They're very diligent about getting these funds, completing their project, closing it out, and reapplying.

Alex Johnston: They'll do projects in phases, they'll buy a new tanker truck, all of these things go towards your ISO or your insurance service off this rating, which in turn lowers your insurance, your homeowner's insurance. So, that's really important to all of our departments. This particular department, Tulip - Princeton, in Dallas County, was able to lower their ISO from a nine, 10, which is the highest you can get, which means your insurance rates are very high, down to a six. A six is really kind of-

Jeff Moore: Yeah.

Alex Johnston: The goal that all of these rural departments wanna get to.

Jeff Moore: A standard of sorts? [inaudible 00:05:30]

Alex Johnston: Yeah, I mean, the major cities are Little Rock, your [inaudible 00:05:32] or your Conway, those are all gonna be ones that are very low, but they also have full-time staff that's paid. These are all volunteers, so to get that four points down and save all of that money on the insurance for all of your service area, that's huge.

Alex Johnston: They've been really great, and then we have some county fairs that come back every year, every other year, and are able to redo their whole entire livestock arena, put in new fans, new paint, new pens, you know, for all of the livestock. One that comes to mind is Drew County, Monticello, they do a really great job through our program also.

Jeff Moore: So, just around the corner is the next Rural Development Conference, it's annual, and I can't.

Alex Johnston: Yes.

Jeff Moore: Which ... How many have you had to this point?

Alex Johnston: That's a good question. I was trying to calculate it myself, and I can't quite figure out when it started.

Jeff Moore: There's never been.

.Alex Johnston: Yes.

Jeff Moore: It's always been-

Alex Johnston: I started in 2012. This is my fifth to plan and execute myself. So, I say that it's my fifth annual, but there have been many, I know since early 2000's at least.

Jeff Moore: So what do you refer to as the Annual Rural Development Conference.

Alex Johnston: Yes, yes.

Jeff Moore: With an asterisk, yeah. So, May 14th through the 16th in amazing Hot Springs, Arkansas. So, what a great location. So, who needs to attend the conference? And why would they ... What would be a reason they should attend?

Alex Johnston: Sure. Yeah, well, most of our attendees are mayors, judges. A lot of these volunteer fire departments, they send some of their volunteers, we have city council members, we have [inaudible 00:06:59] court members, we have legislatures. The legislatures will hold committee meetings, joint committee meetings while we're there. So there will be a lot of your people who represent your districts there, that it's great to mix and mingle with.

Alex Johnston: We also ... and lots of state and federal officials, lots of different resources. A lot of different state entities will be there sharing resources that they provide also. A lot of the people who apply for our grants, planning and development districts, the chambers, grant writers, those types of people. It's open for anyone who's really looking for resources for their community.

Alex Johnston: The great thing about joining forces with AEDC in 2015 is we do serve rural Arkansas, but now we look almost at the state more as a whole, and we get those people who come and are looking for AEDC resources. Also, we're able to incorporate some of those things into our programming.

Jeff Moore: Yeah, that makes sense. I would imagine, you mentioned that a lot of these smaller communities depend on volunteers, I would imagine those people are just interested in helping their communities grow, but benefit from that as well, right? Just to be a part of-

Alex Johnston: Absolutely.

Jeff Moore:  It and hear what's going on around the state, who's doing things well, how they're doing those things.

Alex Johnston: Absolutely. Yeah, we usually try to have one panel that shares some success stories, or some resources. I mean, this year we have that, and we always get a lot of great feedback from that. The communities who might not know that our programs exist, or might just think of it as, "Let's apply once when there's these communities who are coming back and getting grants, year after year, and are able to really do some great projects." So it's fun to share those during the event.

Jeff Moore: Yeah, so how is it structured? I imagine you have some keynotes, some breakout sessions, so tell me a little bit about that.

Alex Johnston: Yeah, I can give you a rundown of that. So, we say it's a three day conference, it actually starts on ... at 1:00 on Tuesday, and ends by 1:00 on Thursday. But the first day we always have an opening welcome, and this year with us being in Hot Springs, we thought that it would be great to have Eric Jackson from Oaklawn do our opening welcome, give us a little bit of history about Hot Springs, give us some history about Oaklawn. They're going through a lot of great changes right now. So that'll be a lot of fun, and then we'll close out the evening at Oaklawn, and do a dinner at the Jockey Club. So, it's not really Oaklawn day, but we're kinda focusing on where we are, and those types of things.

Alex Johnston: Then the first day we'll have a couple panels, we'll have one that we're partnering with, our small Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise at AEDC, and also the Winrock Women's Business Center, to put on minority and women-owned business 101. So that'll be really fun. They're bringing in lots of businesses that they've helped to share success stories, and show kinda the resources available through AEDC, and available through Winrock.

Alex Johnston: Then we'll also have challenges facing rural hospitals and communities. There's been a lot of change in the way hospitals operate, and we'll look at those problems, and we'll look at some solutions also.

Jeff Moore: So it's kind of a practical time-

Alex Johnston: Yeah.

Jeff Moore: Then probably. Yeah, where you can just kind of ... and I'm sure there's some Q&A involved in some of that, where people can really-

Alex Johnston: Absolutely.

Jeff Moore: Try to make sense of what they're hearing, and how they can carry that back to their communities.

Alex Johnston: Absolutely. We like our panels to be very interactive, question and answer, taking home some ideas, not just, "Here are some brochures, here are some PowerPoints," and leave you with a bunch of information.

Jeff Moore: And some pens and a bag full of Jockey-

Alex Johnston: You can visit the exhibit for all of those things. But then on Wednesday, we continue with a couple more panels, we'll have a workforce panel that's being led by our EVP Clint O’Neal, the war for talent in 2019, and then we'll discuss opportunities [inaudible 00:10:29] in Arkansas.

Alex Johnston: Our big lunch, our big, I guess maybe win this year is our keynote at our luncheon on Wednesday. We'll have Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, and we're really excited about him coming, I know there's-

Jeff Moore: I'm sure that's a reason for everybody to show up, yeah, at least for Wednesday.

Alex Johnston: There's been a lot going on in Arkansas athletics, so I think it'll be fun for our crowd to get to hear from him, kind of one-on-one. I know that we have lots of fans that attend.

Jeff Moore: Is that Wednesday's keynote?

Alex Johnston: Wednesday at 11:30, yes. Then following the luncheon, it's probably our most popular event, it is the political roundtable. We work with Roby Brock of Talk Business & Politics, and he moderates that. He'll moderate six to eight legislatures, and basically grill them on everything that's happened in the [inaudible 00:11:13] session. It's a lot of fun, you get a lot of information, and kind of their takeaways from the session. This one just kind of ending, there's a lot to take away from it, so I think they'll have a lot to discuss, and that'll be fun.

Jeff Moore: Yeah, so, in terms of supporting you, I know attendance is big, just getting people, you know, to know about the conference, how they can benefit from the conference, and then register and engage. So, how can they register first? What's a good, just a link [inaudible 00:11:43]

Alex Johnston: Our website, Arkansasedc.com, under I believe it's Community Resources, it's the Rural Services page. We have a very user-friendly platform this year to register online. You can do that at any point, you can do it by mail, if you prefer. We have everything up from registrations, exhibitors, sponsorships, any types of, I guess registration levels.

Alex Johnston: Something I didn't mention is on Thursday, we close out the conference with Governor Hutchinson, he comes and awards the latest grants. So we'll give about 50 grants on Thursday, totaling almost $600,000, he'll be there to hand those out. You can just attend that. A lot of times our awardees might not attend the whole entire conference, but will come for that last luncheon. You can register for just the luncheon online.

Alex Johnston: We have every option, and we're willing to work with you to help you register. Our hotel is also available, that information is available online. Some discounted rates, as long as they are around.

Jeff Moore: Right. You spoke of Governor Hutchinson, and-

Alex Johnston: Yes.

Jeff Moore: That reminds me too, that you'll also be announcing the Rural Developer of the Year.

Alex Johnston: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.

Jeff Moore: The Governor was awarded last year.

Alex Johnston: The Governor was named. Yes, he was the Rural Advocate of the Year last year-

Jeff Moore: Okay, sorry, I got that wrong.

Alex Johnston: No, no, it's fine. I get confused about it, but we'll name one this year. We always try to keep it a big secret, and as we're presenting that, kinda gives them background about them, without saying their name. It's always kind of fun. I watched the Governor last year as he was awarded, and it took him probably halfway through the first paragraph to kind of say, "Hey, that's me," and then he smiled, and kinda tried to keep it cool. But that's always a fun-

Jeff Moore: Yeah, the whole idea of hearing yourself described, "You know what? That sounds a lot like me. You grew up in the same town I did, wait."

Alex Johnston: Exactly. It's hard to hide all his accomplishments though, so by the second paragraph everyone knew. But-

Jeff Moore: It becomes pretty obvious, yeah.

Alex Johnston: That's always fun to guess.

Jeff Moore: Yeah, that's always fun to look forward to, to see who's awarded that.

Alex Johnston: Yeah.

Jeff Moore: So finally, obviously you can help your communities by getting involved, and this is one conference each year where all the communities are coming together. How can corporate supporters, others, get involved in helping support the Rural Development Conference this year?

Alex Johnston: Absolutely. Yeah, we offer sponsorships, and we have different levels of support. A lot just like to come in and mix and mingle. Some, we have booth options included in that, logo recognition. Any options we're really open and welcome to, you can look at those options on our website, or anyone at our office can help. But, we could not put on the conference without the support of our sponsors, and we have a handful of really, really, great sponsors who've been with us since whatever year we haven't established when it started. But, at least five, and we're thankful for them, and really could not put on this conference.

Alex Johnston: We try to keep the cost down. Generally the registration fee that we charge each year does not even cover the cost of registration, and the meals, and all the materials that go with it. So the sponsors really are an important part of our whole event.

Jeff Moore: Well, you've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. We have been visiting with Alex Johnston, who is the Director of Rural Services for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and talking about the Rural Development Conference. The fifth annual for Alex, but there's been many more before that. So, it's been around, and been a tremendous help to the state and the communities that are working in our state to make a difference for the people of Arkansas.

Jeff Moore: The Rural Development Conference will be May 14 through the 16th in beautiful Hot Springs at the Convention Center in Hot Springs, Arkansas. So if you haven't signed up, please do that.

Jeff Moore: Thank you so much, Alex.

Alex Johnston: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff Moore: We look forward to understanding who the Rural Advocate of the Year will be. Then one final question before we get off, this one probably won't be on there, but I want you on the record to tell us about the Feral Hog Taskforce.

Alex Johnston: Stay tuned. There's a bill signing Friday. Stay tuned.

Jeff Moore: Thank you, Alex.

Jeff Moore: This has been the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Moore. To learn more, visit our website at arkansasedc.com. Thank you for listening.