Jasper's Future Strategic Community Plan was released in July and no time is being wasted to turn it into reality.
The comprehensive plan took over a year to develop by city officials and community stakeholders with the assistance of the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District (NWAEDD) and the Arkansas Economic Development Institute (AEDI).
NWAEDD received a grant from the Economic Development Administration (EDA) in 2017 to perform strategic economic assessments in its most rural counties. Jasper was chosen to participate in the grant in 2019.
The EDA grant enabled NWAEDD to contract with the AEDI to perform the assessments using its Arkansas Cultural and Community Economic Strength System (ACCESS). That system was used in the planning stages that included a series of meetings, demographic surveys and on-site studies conducted throughout the year.
It was noted during the preparation of the study that no other community in Arkansas has developed a comprehensive plan. Other communities set much narrower plans that focused on a few high profile projects to benefit business, government or the community to improve the area's overall quality of life.
Jasper's various committees investigated economic development, tourism and quality of life issues and their findings are compiled in the more than 30-page color brochure. The plan outlines recommendations divided into tiers establishing immediate, short term and long term goals.
Necessary for the plan's success is continued public involvement to ensure that the work will be carried on into the future.
Considered a living document, the plan may be revised as circumstances dictate. The plan had already been in its final draft when the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic broke out world-wide. Stated in comments appearing at the end of the plan, "While all of these challenges and recommendations still need to be implemented, the effects of the pandemic will cause more issues that communities large and small will need to address. Disaster recovery and resiliency plans will need to be created or adjusted to address the economic and health aspects of an emergency of this scale."
The booklet is also to be used as a tool to promote economic expansion to Jasper and the surrounding area.
Mayor Jan Larson said she sent a copy to Johnny Morris CEO of Bass Pro Shops after it was learned that his business was the purchaser of the former Dogpatch USA property. Larson said that Morris acknowledged his appreciation for the publication in a handwritten note he mailed to her. Morris has expanded his business into nature and wildlife conservation ventures such as Dogwood Canyon in Missouri as well as making natural history the featured attraction at the Big Cedar Lodge resort and neighboring Top of the Rock golf course, both also in Missouri.
Broadband improvements needed for remote working
A tier 1 objective included in the Jasper Plan is to make Jasper a "remote work destination." This includes developing a marketing campaign to attract people to the city who can work from home via the Internet. The benefits, according to the study, are an increased tax base, a larger and more diverse population and a reduction in the number of younger residents leaving the community. However, resources needed are money for digital marketing and the completion of internet upgrades within and surrounding Jasper.
To gain some direction on reaching these goals, the Information Technology Committee of the Jasper City Council met recently with Ron Warren, associate professor at the University of Arkansas Department of Communication. He is the director of the Digital Inclusion Project working to providing broadband internet access to all communities of 500+ people by 2022.
The project helps communities gather data on residents' internet use, then analyze and use the data to inform the communities' plans for broadband implementations. In addition, it can work with communities on specific issues of broadband use regarding health care, civic engagement, education and community life. The project will compile the information into a usable format at no cost.
Local assistance is needed to contact residents informing them of the project and encourage the public's participation. Local assistance is also needed to determine the scope of the internet use survey that will be used to conduct the study. Most surveys take 1 to 12 minutes to fill out. A month-long response time was recommended by Warren.
Warren also advised the city to make an application for an Arkansas Rural Connect Grant. This grant program is designed to expand the broadband footprint in rural Arkansas communities. The ARC program will distribute at least $4.7 million in grants for partnerships between localities and internet service providers.
Warren also suggested the IT Committee contact the Arkansas State Broadband Office and Nathan Smith, Ph.D.,Arkansas' broadband manager for more assistance.
The IT committee was planning a followup meeting sometime this week.
The Jasper, Arkansas, Future Strategic Community Plan was released in July. Various committees spent a year investigating Jasper's economic development, tourism and quality of life issues and their findings are compiled in the more than 30-page color brochure. The plan outlines recommendations divided into tiers establishing immediate, short term and long term goals.