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Kick Start Cleveland County Renewed

by Tabatha Duvall, Dr. Hunter Goodman, Emily Smith - May 31, 2022

In March 2022, as masking eased and communities renewed their commitment to in-person gatherings and connections, local leaders and Extension agents faced a new reality. From 2020-2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses, parents, individuals, and organizations continued to create change, build strong relationships, and lean on each other for basic needs.  

Cleveland County is a great example of a community taking time to build on its strategic plan and focus community energy on the areas of focus with the greatest interest in 2022. Cleveland County’s leaders and residents have a vision to build a vibrant place to lives grounded in quality of life, education, broadband, health, and care for each other.

A rural population of approximately 8,000 residents, Cleveland County residents developed the Kickstart Cleveland County initiative in 2015 to generate economic opportunities for the communities in the county. 

Origin Story 

Kickstart Cleveland County began in the spring of 2015 after a community meeting with staff members from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's Community, Professional and Economic Development (CPED)CPED unit.

Les Walz, then staff chair for the Cleveland County Cooperative Extension Service office, organized the meeting to help Rison Shine Downtown Development develop a long-range plan for renovating and developing the downtown area of Rison.

"We had hit a plateau about that time, and we were looking for ideas to take the group and the initiative forward," said Britt Talent, who helped start Rison Shine Downtown Development and served as its first president.

Talent said the first meeting with UADA staff included a tour of the community and Cleveland County to identify the assets that could be beneficial in developing a vision for the community. Afterwards, members of Rison Shine as well as leaders from the community met to discuss their ideas and goals for Rison.

"During that meeting, UADA staff us if we wanted to just focus on Rison or did we want to expand it to include the entire county," Talent said. "Our group voted to include the entire county."

The name Kickstart Cleveland County was chosen at a subsequent meeting, and Talent, along with Walz and former Cleveland County Family and Consumer Science Agent Diane Clement, held a series of community meetings around the county encouraging people to begin their own community development groups like Rison Shine.

Out of that effort came the birth of three other groups: Kickstart Kingsland, Re-New-ing Edinburg and Wake-Up Woodlawn.

Since then, other organizations have joined under the Kickstart Cleveland County Community Development Initiative banner, including the Cleveland County Fairgrounds, the Pioneer Village at Rison, the Cleveland County Community Theater, and earlier this year, the Cleveland County Youth Sports Association.

Kickstart Cleveland County became an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the primary purpose of helping new community groups get off the ground. 

"One the problems we faced early on with Rison Shine was that we did not a legal non-profit status. That really hurt us in applying for grants and accepting donations," Talent said. "It takes time and effort - and in some cases, money -to achieve a 501(c)3 status. That's tough to do for a new start-up group."

"By making Kickstart Cleveland County at 501(c)3, we can now funnel those grant applications and donations through the umbrella group with the idea that those individual groups will one day be able to attain their own non-profit status," Talent said.

Action Teams & Accomplishments 

Kickstart Cleveland County consists of seven action teams staffed by volunteers.

These teams have put in over 30,000 hours, valued at $819,468, and have raised $182,310 in grants and donations.

  • In 2018, Kingsland purchased a building for a Johnny Cash Museum and conducted a tour to evaluate tourism potential.
  • The Community Theater presented four productions, reaching over 1,250 attendees.
  • Friends of the Pioneer Village continued to restore buildings, put on events (3,950 attendees total), and raise money. Over $37,470 was raised through grants, fundraisers, and donations. A combined 2,280 volunteers contributed 6,300 hours, valued at $156,732.  

Now in 2022, Walz says, “I am most proud of the organizing of our volunteer groups and watching them complete community service projects and events. We have a good group of volunteers conducting great community events like Christmas in the Village, and Haunted Houses, and Christmas lights, and Easter Events, and Fall Festivals.” 

Overcoming COVID & Asset-Based Community Development Approach (ABCD)

Since the beginning of 2020, a lot of the momentum that Cleveland County had was put on hold. Meetings were halted, projects were put on hold, and community development was not a priority during the global pandemic.

Cleveland County is ready to get the ball rolling once again, but they are still facing roadblocks; some resulting from COVID-19. In early 2022, Walz and Talent contacted CPED staff and asked to help find a way to renew their charge. 

Following conversation with Walz, Talent, and members of the Kick Start Cleveland County team about their goals now, the CPED team facilitated a community conversation on April 4. Residents and community leaders recollected their accomplishments along with brainstorming the gifts, assets, skills, and talents of community members to create, vibrant, inclusive communities.  

Building on the research-centered approach of "ABCD" and the work of Jody Kretzman and John McKnight, asset-based community development is used globally to engage community leaders, including marginalized persons and populations, through strengthened relationship and a focus on positive discovery. ABCD involves a shift in organizational and community mindset from problems and deficiencies to assets and gifts. 

During the April meeting, community members identified their largest challenges and areas of greatest energy for the community. Although topics of infrastructure came up, most participants cited lack of volunteers, particularly young people, as a challenge. Other challenges included: lack of coordination from different community groups, the fact that the volunteers who are active seem to be doing it all and are becoming burned out. CPED staff and participants explored ways to build on the relationships, skills, and gifts in the community to identify new volunteers and re-engage current leaders. 

After the meeting, one resident reached out to Walz. She was excited to see the next steps and has taken the lead in planning their next Rison Shine meeting as well as spearheading a theater project for downtown Rison. In the future, Walz said he’d like to see beautification projects, downtowns turned into destination spots, lodging, and a renewed infrastructure.  

Building on relationships and a shared vision for Cleveland County once again, residents are working together to focus on one to two priority areas for growth and community quality of life.