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Arkansas Inc. Podcast - Partnering with Arkansas Communities

 February 19, 2021

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. podcast, our host is joined by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Becca Caldwell and Matt Twyford to discuss the many ways we partner with communities throughout the state. 

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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.

Clark Cogbill (00:18):                                  

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. My name is Clark Cogbill and I serve as Director of Marketing for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. We are recording today's podcasts from Lucky Dog Audio based in downtown Little Rock. If this past year has shown us anything, it's the importance of community. The people of Arkansas are known for their willingness to work together, and that culture of collaboration has been on full display as businesses, citizens, and community leaders across the state have worked together during the health and economic challenges of the pandemic. As a state, we are only as strong as our cities and towns. When it comes to economic development, we know that when businesses are considering Arkansas for new projects, they are looking at the workforce, infrastructure, quality of life and resources of specific communities like Jonesborough, Ash Flat, Fort Smith, and Crossett. When our communities thrive, our state thrives.

Clark Cogbill (01:15):                                                

Today on the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, we have the pleasure of speaking with two people who stay focused on the communities of Arkansas, Becca Caldwell, Director of Rural Services with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Matt Twyford, Director of Community Development, also part of AEDC. Becca and Matt, welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Matt Twyford (01:35): Thank you, Clark.

Becca Caldwell (01:36): Thank you, Clark.

Clark Cogbill (01:37):
 Becca, we'll start with you. Tell us about the AEDC Rural Services Division and your role as director of that team.

Becca Caldwell (01:44):                                            

Sure, thanks Clark. The Division of Rural Services administers four grant programs, the Rural Community Grants, the County Fair Building Grant, Rural Services Block Grant, and the Wildlife Education Grant. I'll start with the Rural Community Grant and the County Fair Grants as they are both 50/50 matching grants in which the city, community or County fair association would need to match the requested amount of funding that they are requesting from the Division of Rural Services in either cash or in kind labor or materials. The maximum requestable amount for the Rural Community Grant is 15,000 and the maximum requestable amount for the County Fair Grant is 4,000. The Rural Community Grant Program is aimed at improving fire departments and community centers or parks in cities and communities with a population of 3,000 and below, and the County Fair Grant is for counties with a population of 55,000 and below.

Becca Caldwell (02:42):                                            

And that grant program is aimed at improving local County fair grounds. We have installed various exhibit halls and things like that on those County fair grounds. The Rural Services Block Grant is a 10% matching grant for cities and communities with a population of 3,000 or below and they can request up to 75,000 in funding through this grant program. As this is federal funding, we do have a LMI or low to moderate income requirement for this grant program, in which the city or community, their LMI must be 51% or higher in order to qualify. Our newest grant program, the Arkansas Game and Fish Wildlife Conservation Education Grant Program is for schools and conservation districts. Each year the Game and Fish Commission takes the fund money they collect and it's distributed by County. This grant program has no maximum requestable amount, but we are limited by what is in the County account. And then as Director, it is my responsibility to oversee all of these grant programs that I mentioned, plan and implement our Rural Development Conference and to reach out to rural communities to discuss possible projects and explore all avenues for funding.

Clark Cogbill (03:58):
So many great programs for us to partner with our rural communities across the state. Thank you. Now, Matt, give us an overview of AEDC's Community Development Division.

Matt Twyford (04:09):                                                            

Absolutely. The Community Development Division, I am blessed to have an amazing team of three regional managers. Kelsey Kelton is our Northwest Arkansas representative and Kelsey brings a background of having worked for a U.S. Senator, so she has an expertise in government relations and brings that specific skillset. Kristen Dane has a background in planning, so brings that unique skillset to the team. Brittany Lutz, who technically is no longer part of the Community Development Team, but I still like to take credit for her, we hired her on as a project analyst and she was a little bit too efficient at her job for my tastes because she has been promoted since then to the research manager of the agency, working closely with the business development team and with us as we assist communities for all their research needs. And then I'm happy to announce also we have hired our Northeast Arkansas regional manager who will be Amy Williams.

Matt Twyford (05:17):                                                            

She comes to us from the Cabot Chamber Of Commerce, has experience having run a local economic development organization for over seven years, is from Northeast Arkansas, has a passion to really help improve that region. So very excited to bring her on board in the coming months. And as I mentioned, we're essentially the face of the agency to our communities. Our typical customers would be mayors and County judges, which would be similar to Becca's customers. But additionally, we work closely with Chambers of Commerce, with economic development organizations that stand alone within some communities that have that capacity. And our role is to identify issues and problems within the community, and then connect those issues and problems to resources and solutions. And that can mean a lot of different things as community development in general can mean a lot of different things, but essentially we are out trying to help the state prepare for job creation, in a nutshell.

Clark Cogbill (06:23):

Great. Now, Matt, I know last year in 2020 for a time, your team's roles completely changed. Tell us a little bit about what happened.

Matt Twyford (06:33): 
Yes. I think with most of the world, we had to learn the word pivot and what our version of pivoting was obviously with COVID being so prevalent everywhere, we were no longer in a position to travel throughout to our communities and try to help them and assist them in those ways. And I think very early on, I was working with my team to try to proactively identify ways that we could help from afar. And it didn't take long for that issue to solve itself. We had several programs that our agency was tasked with administering, starting with the Governor's Quick Action Closing Fund, which made available the Quick Action Bridge Loan to small businesses, which essentially was a program that was meant to help small businesses that needed federal assistance, but could potentially even run out of money prior to being able to receive those federal funds as there were some delays initially and getting some of those things out.

Matt Twyford (07:42):                               

So we had a bridge loan program that was meant to help businesses that were still operating under COVID to stay open and hopefully keep their doors open long enough to receive some of that federal assistance. That was a smaller program that we assisted, I believe in total, almost a thousand businesses. I will say our team specifically reviewed 250 of those applications and did a lot of the technical assistance for those individuals that were trying to receive the assistance. And when the Quick Action Bridge Loan ran out of money, we got an allocation from the Cares Act that went towards a program called The Ready For Business Grant. And our team worked really closely along with a lot of others in the agency to assist with small businesses to receive those funds, which were meant to help businesses operate more safely in the COVID world.

Matt Twyford (08:38):                                              

So buying things like PPE and hand sanitizer, spacing out and reorganizing setups so that people could space out and work more safely and effectively. And with the administering of that program, the Community Development Team reviewed over 2,500 of those apps. And we're currently in the process of all those grantees that received funds had to submit their expenses so we could ensure that they were eligible expenses. And as of last count, I think we had reviewed 11,750 of those expenses. And in the process for both of these programs and other assistance that we've tried to direct people towards, we have answered over 5,000 emails and countless phone calls for businesses and individuals who just were really impacted from a business standpoint by COVID in hopes that we can try to assist as many businesses and groups to keep their doors open during this time.

Clark Cogbill (09:43):                   

Well, I know a lot of people at AEDC changed their roles temporarily. Thanks for describing everything that went on and it was inspiring to watch. Becca, we're going to go back to you. What's one program that the Rural Services Department provides that maybe flies under the radar that you wish more people knew about?

Becca Caldwell (10:02):

I think people definitely know about the Rural Community and the County Fair Grant Programs, however, I don't think that they know about the unique matching opportunities that these grant programs allow. I know that the 50/50 matching aspect can be daunting as some communities may not have that much money to put towards the project. However, the match does not have to be made up of city or county appropriation. It can be donated as in kind labor or donated materials. We have even had some communities or cities match the entire project with donated labor. So the entire 15,000 that they have to match, they have matched with donated labor or donated materials. We allow for regular labor hours to be calculated at $20 and 1 cents an hour. And then if there's specialized work being provided, say an electrician or a plumber, we can take their normal rate and use that as part of the match.

Becca Caldwell (10:55):                                                          

These grant programs provide for many avenues and options for that match aspect and I just think that sometimes we just need to be a little creative and find ways to make that work. I want to encourage anyone looking into these grant programs to reach out to me to discuss the project in mind. Even if you don't have the funding available, we might be able to work something out, finding a way that you can match the grant with some type of donated labor or materials. Like I said, it's all about being creative.

Clark Cogbill (11:31):                                                               

Right. That's very, very helpful information. For both of you, I want to hear a little bit about how your divisions, Community Development and Rural Services, collaborate as you and your teams work with communities throughout the state. Matt, I'll start with you on that question.

Matt Twyford (11:47):                                                            

Yeah. So I think that Community Development and Rural Services work hand in hand in those communities that are eligible for the funding that Becca and her team, which I think currently is just Becca, can provide. We, and again, in typical non-COVID times would be out in the communities, talking with County judges, talking with mayors, talking with individuals within those communities and if they had any issues that would qualify for some of Becca's programming, then we would encourage them and send them along her way. It's kind of one of the many avenues that we try to help communities to improve themselves. As, like I said, just one of the many resources that we would point communities towards.

Becca Caldwell (12:35):                                                          

Yeah. I mean, I would just want to echo what Matt said and kind of expand on it. They're the eyes and ears out in the community. We try to get out as much as we can, but we really do rely on them to hear what projects need to be moved forward in one of our cities or communities, or if there's a problem, it's just nice to have them out there. Like I said, kind of being our eyes and ears. That way we can reach out if need be and kind of problem solve and help those communities get what they need.

Clark Cogbill (13:07):
 Another question for you both, how does Community Development and Rural Services impact economic development? Becca, I'll start with you.

Becca Caldwell (13:16):

I would have to say that our grant programs help our rural communities become more competitive by improving their local infrastructure. For example, we were able to grant the City of Fairfield Bay a grant to extend their training room of their fire station. Because they received that grant, they were then eligible to apply for a much larger grant through the Delta Regional Authority for a helicopter pad.

Clark Cogbill (13:40): Oh, that's fantastic.

Becca Caldwell (13:40):

This has made the city a draw, not only for training purposes, but it has also made Fairfield Bay more competitive in bringing businesses into the city. We like to think of our grant programs as building blocks to help strengthen the community, either by improving the infrastructure or being a part of a larger project.

Matt Twyford (14:00):

Yeah. I think that community development and economic development kind of go hand in hand. You really need one in order to have the other. And when we talk about, as an agency, economic development, we're focusing primarily on jobs and job creation. There are a lot of factors that go into consultants or businesses that are looking to create jobs that are out of control for a community. They can't necessarily determine their proximity to interstate or highway, to navigable river, to airports, or even really necessarily institutions of higher education. But there are things that every community can work on to become more competitive to hopefully attract the types of jobs that would be successful and thrive within those communities. And some of those things would be focusing on efforts for developing the workforce. There's some unique ideas going on throughout the state and throughout the nation now in workforce training and trying to really focus at an earlier age than we had been previously and teaching individuals the skills that will allow them to immediately go out and get a good paying job.

Matt Twyford (15:17):

And then additionally, I think one of the things that people think about with community development, there's a phrase that is thrown around a lot, quality of place, quality of life. Those are issues that communities really need to focus on now more than ever. There was a drive that a lot of people say kind of millennials led the way of determining where it was that they wanted to live prior to finding a job. Whereas, in generations prior to that, a lot of people found a job and that's where they went to live. I'm gen X and I think that it didn't necessarily start with millennials because I kind of did the same thing. I decided where I wanted to live and I found a job. So maybe I was just a little ahead of the curve, but it's something that we've seen as a trend that people want to live in a community where there's fun things to do and activities that interest them.

Matt Twyford (16:08):

And I think with COVID, we found that that's even more the case as we've learned how people can work effectively, remotely. And a lot of businesses are kind of shifting away from, whereas they would have a large concentration of individuals coming into an office, I think that they're finding people can still work effectively, in some cases, from home. So people do have a little bit more freedom to determine where that home is. And so we really work with communities to just look for kind of unique and creative ways to be attractive for those types of individuals.

Clark Cogbill (16:47):

Yeah. That's an interesting insight on kind of the reversal of that trend, where more people are choosing their home first and then where they're going to work. Becca, earlier this year, the Rural Services Division, I was reading this, awarded more than 536,000 in grants to 65 Arkansas counties. Tell us a little bit about this particular grant program and some of the specific ways these grants will be used.

Becca Caldwell (17:16):

Yes, this funding was awarded through the Arkansas Game and Fish Conservation Education Grant Program. I know that's a lot. So we shortened that grant program to the Wildlife Grant Program for short. Funding for this grant program is collected through the game and fish through their fines and it's divvied up by county. Schools and conservation districts can request funding based off of the amount that is in that county account and if funding was not spent from a certain county, that rolls over for the next fiscal year. They may use this funding for various game and fish programs, including, but not limited to, archery, shooting sports, fishing in the natural state or fins, project wild or creating a non-permanent structure for an outdoor classroom, wildlife habitats and field trips. This year we had an increase in requests for outdoor classrooms, which may have been a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Becca Caldwell (18:15):

We love to see this grant program grow and to see new types of projects. I will say with the outdoor classroom projects, that one has a lot of different variables. We'll see some that are mainly focused on the wildlife habitat aspect or a local gardening type of project. And then we even have some that are aimed more at actually bringing the classroom outside. We can fund shade structures, outdoor... anything that would be used in the classroom, we can fund that for the outdoor classroom itself. The only thing about that I will say is that we can not fund any type of permanent structure. So if you're looking at a pavilion that couldn't be moved, things along those lines, those could not be funded, but we're very flexible. And as I've said before, creativity is key.

Clark Cogbill (19:06):

 Yeah. So if anybody listening has ever gotten say, a fishing fine, they can feel great about some of the  phenomenal programs that this grant program goes towards.

Becca Caldwell (19:19):
 Yes, if you received a fine from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, you are very kindly contributing to this grant fund.

Clark Cogbill (19:28):

Not that we want to encourage anybody to get fined but it it's really great to know. And it was phenomenal to read all the different programs that those grants support. Back to Matt. Matt in 2018, the Community Development Team created a new program called the Competitive Communities Initiative or CCI. Give our listeners an overview of how that program works and the benefit for our Arkansas communities.

Matt Twyford (19:54):

Yeah. So the goal that we had when developing this program was driven in large part by one specific project that the state missed out on landing as a result of not having enough sites in place where the control was already taken care of, where the due diligence was in good shape. We had a lot of things in place. We had a great workforce, but without going into too much detail, there was one specific site that we had in mind and it fell through unfortunately due to some ownership issues. So in large part, CCI was put into place to help the communities help the state by having product for us to sell.

Matt Twyford (20:44):

But we look beyond just the need for sites and identified four pillars that we really wanted to assist communities in becoming more competitive with regard to economic development. So we looked at specifically the economic development organization of a community, the funding that they have specifically for economic development, the workforce narrative, so just a snapshot of what skills and abilities are available in the workforce of that community and the surrounding area that project may be looking for to attract and then product readiness, which is essentially the site portion.

Matt Twyford (21:22):

So we developed that program with all communities in mind. We'd had some other programs in the past that were really targeted towards specific communities that may be in a sweet spot of having some sort of expertise, but needing a little bit more fine tuning. This was something that we put it together that was meant to be able to help communities just beginning with their economic development efforts, giving them a blueprint of first steps of how to start in becoming more competitive, but also with communities that were very established with their economic development efforts and looking for opportunities of things that they may not have been doing or may have been doing in a way that we could point out it could be improved upon. So something that we were really proud of when was all said and done and was rolled out and has worked with a lot of communities throughout the state to become a little bit more competitive with regard to economic development.

Clark Cogbill (22:22):

Yeah, I really like this program. It's unique in that we hear about and see often communities around the country marketing specific sites. We do that too, but this program really is about a community being comprehensively ready, not just a site, but economic development, workforce, all the things you talked about.

Matt Twyford (22:45):

Definitely. We want communities to be competitive in all aspects of economic development. And while you do have to have a site or a building to market in order to an attract project, if you don't have those other pieces in place, then you're not likely to be successful, even if you do have that site or that building. So it was a way for us to help all communities, again, help the state because we have to have something to market in order to hopefully attract those jobs here in Arkansas, as opposed to some of our surrounding states.

Clark Cogbill (23:18):

Yes. And it's been nice to see the different communities that have really stepped up and we now have a handful of those communities that have achieved that CCI designation.

Matt Twyford (23:28):

I appreciate you using the word designation there. Too many people say certification, but yes, we have six communities that have made it through the process.

Clark Cogbill (23:35):

Becca, each year, your team puts together the Rural Development Conference. Like so many events, that conference unfortunately, had to be canceled in 2020 because of COVID. But I understand you've got some good news about this year's event.

Becca Caldwell (23:48):

Yes, I am so excited to announce that our Rural Development Conference has been rescheduled for October 19th through the 21st of 2021. We're having this conference in Jonesborough at the Red Wolf Convention Center and Embassy Suites. It was scheduled for that same location for 2020, so not much has changed in regards to location, as we did have to postpone. But this conference that we do every year is always aimed at getting our local mayors, county judges, legislators, and community leaders together for various sessions and events to discuss how we can help our rural communities. We're planning to move forward with this conference with socially distanced events and sessions. Registration will be open by the end of the month. And I will also be sending out informational packets by the end of the month as well, just to kind of announce this conference and what we'll be planning.

Becca Caldwell (24:41):

If you did register for the 2020 conference, as you know, we did have to postpone, but your registrations are still in place. We will just roll them over for this conference, but I will be reaching out to you individually just to go over this new conference, new dates and things to expect.

Clark Cogbill (24:57):

Well, the Rural Development Conference is always a fantastic event and it's very exciting that it's coming back. And I know that there's a lot to prepare for, to ensure that it's a safe event, but we're very excited about it.

Clark Cogbill (25:11):

It's been a real pleasure speaking with both of you today. For each of you, if there are any community leaders across the state who would like more information about some of the programs we've been talking about, including the Competitive Communities Initiative, including the Rural Development Conference, what's the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Becca Caldwell (25:28):

People can reach out to me directly at (501) 682-3292 or feel free to shoot me an email [email protected].

Matt Twyford (25:46):

And people can reach me at any time. My cell phone is (501) 516-9350. Or you can email me at [email protected].

Clark Cogbill (26:05):

And of course all the contact information and information about these programs can be found at the Arkansas Economic Development website at arkansasedc.com. Becca and Matt, once again, thanks for joining the Arkansas Inc. Podcast today.

Matt Twyford (26:20): Thank you for having us.

Becca Caldwell (26:20): Thank you.

Clark Cogbill (26:21):

Once again, I would like to thank our guests on today's episode, Becca Caldwell, Director of Rural Services for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Matt Twyford, AEDC's Director of Community Development. You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clark Cogbill, Director of Marketing with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. For more information about AEDC visit arkansasedc.com and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Thanks for tuning in.