Create Bridges, a two-year pilot program to help rural regions grow their economies through the retail and hospitality industries is seeking participants, with applications due Aug. 3.

With funding from Walmart, Stacey McCullough developed Create Bridges in partnership with the Southern Rural Development Center. McCullough is head of Community and Economic Development for the Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

The Arkansas team and collaborative partners University of Kentucky and Oklahoma State University will develop, refine, and pilot a process to help rural communities build their ability to staff, support and grow retail and hospitality sectors.

“A primary goal of this program is to build local capacity to address needs specific to the region,” McCullough said. “Strategies may include education and training for employees and employers, but they may also involve infrastructure or support services to support these businesses."

Retail is an important sector that serves local needs as well as being an entry point to the workforce system for new workers. Retail businesses often find it difficult to keep workers for extended periods, which leaves them with a shortage of shift leaders, floor supervisors, and managers. Create Bridges will look at workforce solutions to keep workers and to be able to promote from within.

Create Bridges builds on the Stronger Economies Together initiative, bit.ly/uaex-SET, a collaborative effort across 32 states led by the Southern Rural Development Center that helps rural counties work together to develop and implement an economic development plan for their multi-county region.

How to apply

Regions comprising two to five counties that are predominantly rural can apply to participate in the two-year program. Regions that apply should have some type of retail hub that pulls workers from outside areas. One selected region will have access to new or adapted workforce programs, financial incentives for employee and employer participation, and funding to support small seed projects.

The Cooperative Extension Service and its state partners will facilitate a Retail Academy for regional leaders and a Business Retention and Expansion Program. The partners will coordinate with regional workforce investment boards to identify opportunities for workforce training.

Funds are available for daycare, transportation and food to overcome obstacles to participation. There are also funds for businesses to identify an innovations that will mean better opportunities for their workers.

“This is an opportunity for employers, employees, local leaders and others in the region to work together to improve the local economy and quality of life,” McCullough said.

For more information about this project, contact Julianne Dunn, Instructor-Economic Development at Cooperative Extension, at 501-671-2158, or email her at jbdunn@uaex.edu. The application can be found at bit.ly/CEDCreateBridges.