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Cooperative Extension Service receives $650,000 grant to fund University Center


Fast Facts:

Five-year grant will fund extension as a University Center to connect rural, marginalized communities in state with local economic development resources
Extension will offer training and workshops in Arkansas’ eight Planning and Development Districts
As part of grant, extension will work with Heartland Forward organization to track workforce data

LITTLE ROCK — The U.S. Economic Development Administration recently awarded a $650,000, five-year grant to the Cooperative Extension Service’s Community, Professional and Economic Development department to establish and operate a University Center. The center will serve extension’s mission to strengthen Arkansans and their communities by connecting them with research-based resources throughout the state.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Extension Center for Rural Resilience and Workforce Development will not be a physical location, but rather a resource serving the state’s “economic development ecosystem,” with a particular focus on rural marginalized populations, including Hispanic and Marshallese communities.
Hunter Goodman, extension director of the University Center for the Division of Agriculture, said an economic development ecosystem “includes all of the organizations and groups that focus on improving local economies, which might include chambers of commerce, business consulting organizations, cities, counties, regional nonprofits and lenders, as well as county extension offices.”
Goodman said this work will be done in partnership with Arkansas’ eight Planning and Development Districts, or PDDs, which are funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. PDDs are multi-jurisdictional entities, commonly composed of multiple counties and sometimes across state borders. Goodman said PDDs develop local and regional strategies for comprehensive economic development, and they partner with public, private and non-profit sectors to implement these strategies.
Working with these PDDs, extension will offer training and workshops for their staff and community partners — such as municipalities, council members, chambers of commerce or quorum courts — on strategic planning and facilitation, grant writing, data literacy and more. This training will also involve teaching staff how to develop culturally relevant outreach opportunities for marginalized communities.
Brandon L. Mathews, extension program manager for the University Center, said staff from the PDDs “expressed a desire to connect to rural, Hispanic and Marshallese communities, but needed assistance developing the right resources, personnel, and networks.”
“There are organizations that support these three populations, and extension wants to be a statewide resource that brings these organizations together to provide workshops and training to communities who need them,” Mathews said. “Across the state, these organizations provide business consulting to entrepreneurs and small business owners, and they have a vested interest in the same three communities.”
Mathews said that by creating better communication among these organizations and the populations they seek to assist, more opportunities for economic development can be made available — such as county or regional job fairs with information about small business support, employee trainings, financing and capital, and mentoring opportunities.
Tracking workforce data
Extension’s University Center will also develop a data resource center focusing on workforce data. The University Center will partner with Heartland Forward, a Bentonville-based nonprofit that studies “broad economic trends and builds data-driven and community-tested partnerships, programs and policies to address local needs,” Mathews said.
“Heartland Forward is excited to partner with extension to deliver data tools and build capacity at the local and regional levels in Arkansas around workforce development,” said Dave Shideler, chief research officer for Heartland Forward.
“Heartland Forward will create interactive data dashboards called ‘labor market observatories’ for the eight PDDs, which will focus on workforce data primarily for rural, Hispanic and Marshallese populations,” Mathews said.
These dashboards will be used to identify and analyze labor market trends and opportunities for future programming — workshops, trainings and other extension outreach.
Goodman said Heartland Forward staff will coach extension county agents through a curriculum that teaches them workforce development skills, helps them identify and address the needs of workers and employers in rural communities, and equips them as trainers to then share these resources within their Planning and Development Districts.
The University Center began work on Oct. 1, 2023, and Goodman said an official announcement of program activities will be released later this year. Members of the Division of Agriculture’s University Center team include the center’s director and principal investigator, Hunter P. Goodman; Brandon L. Mathews, extension program associate for economic development; Tabatha Duvall, extension program associate for community workforce and economic development; and Julie Robinson, extension associate professor of leadership development.