Regionalism in Community Development – Why is it Important?
In a time when 89 percent of Arkansas counties are not keeping up with the national rate of growth, community leaders need to explore all available opportunities for development. Roby Robertson, Breakthrough Solutions partner and Professor Emeritus, UA Little Rock School of Public Affairs, discusses this issue in an attempt to gain important insights into the unique opportunities in regional development.
Robertson has extensive experience with regional development, so we asked him to explain the relevance of working on a regional basis in today’s environment. His guest blog post appears below:
How do you define your community?
One of the joys in working with communities is to see the variety of definitions of community, from a narrow component working on a neighborhood improvement project to large-scale multi-county approach to finding common grounds on economic growth. Each has a sense of community and the stronger the understanding of the ‘community’ defined, the more likely to find the right combination of folks involved in making the project succeed.
But do all community projects understand the community to be impacted? Would defining the community in broader terms increase the likelihood of getting the needed ‘buy-in’ from others—and thus, increase the success of the project? Here is an example (and it is NOT based on any existing communities). A local city wants to develop a Senior Citizens Center and to emphasize especially veterans and their families. Because the community has a military base nearby, community leaders know that there are substantial veterans living in the community. The community team is made up of city and business leaders as well as a nice cross-section of veterans who live in the city as well. There is a funding stream available from both federal and the business community. A location in the city has been found.
Should the project be a regional Senior Center encouraging veterans from the broader area to participate? Or, after all, since it is a senior center, wouldn’t it be best to stay only in the city? I would emphasize the answer is not always to make it more regional, but I wonder—if a broader set of folks were involved in thinking through the project from the beginning maybe the project would have become a more focused operation for veterans throughout the region.
What do we mean by regional community development?
It can begin with the need to share infrastructure. Obviously, region can include several cities sharing a regional jail or law enforcement working out agreements on 911 systems. Regional solutions can include one of the strongest mergers in Arkansas, the Central Arkansas Water (CAW) system which merged the water process for Little Rock and North Little Rock and which has expanded to other communities. Or it can include several water systems who formally join together to develop new water sources such as those in both northwest and central Arkansas.
In Arkansas, regional community development might be focused on multiple county efforts to create a shared tourism perspective as some are doing in the ‘quilt trail’ efforts in western Arkansas. It might include formal sharing of large scale economic development efforts such as those in the Metropolitan Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.
Why is regionalism difficult to achieve?
Sometimes it is a version of what we call ‘the Friday Night Fights’. Because we compete on the football field on Friday nights, we often feel slighted if one community ‘gets’ the new manufacturing plant and the other does not. The problem in economic development is that most companies are not deciding between two neighboring towns—they are deciding on workforce issues and plant location that are decisions about an area in Arkansas vs an area in South Carolina. Or even Arkansas and Indonesia.
Ultimately, the idea of effective community development should begin with understanding what community we desire to impact. Tourism is a good example. If our definition of tourism is to attract tourists to one specific site and keep them there until they go home----such a tourist is less and less likely to exist. On the other hand, I am so impressed at the efforts to join all the Johnny Cash sites in Tennessee and Arkansas as part of a natural tour. Such solutions require thinking regionally beyond state lines.
My challenge to communities
Think beyond the city/county lines. What is the likely impact of a community development project and who will benefit from its success? Make sure you firstly define what community means to you. The, ensure that all elements of that ‘community’ is involved in the project.
Roby Robertson, Professor Emeritus, UA Little Rock School of Public Affairs, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.