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Floods, Health, Internet and Jobs: Conference Focuses on Rural Arkansas Issues

Ann Kenda
Arkansas Public Media

Rural Arkansas has so much to offer in terms of picturesque surroundings and low cost of living that it should be marketed as the newest retirement hot spot, according to participants of the 2017 Rural Development Conference in Hot Springs this week.

Community leaders gathered at the Convention Center to discuss the quality of life issues for rural residents, such as internet access, better-paying jobs and healthcare.

Despite the perception that health care appointments are hard to come by in rural Arkansas, county judge John Thomison said Lawrence County fares pretty well for medical care.

“We’re always concerned with that, but we have a community-based hospital in the county seat, Walnut Ridge, and we’re blessed with a couple of doctor’s clinics, rural clinics, and we have close proximity to Saint Bernard’s Regional Medical Center,” he said, shortly after emerging from a workshop on flood recovery.  Lawrence County was one of several rural areas affected by near-record flooding during the first week of May.

Credit Ann Kenda / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said a roundtable discussion on medical marijuana was added to the agenda at the 2017 Rural Development Conference because so many participants are wondering how legal pot will affect rural communities.

Participants also stressed the need for a strong infrastructure, since potential employers and businesses won’t take a chance on just promises of a strong infrastructure.

“A lot of times when businesses are wanting to come in, they want to see that it’s in place already before they come in or they don’t want to come in,” said Doug Lawrence, who was manning a booth for USDA Rural Development.

These days the infrastructure includes broadband, according to J.D. Lowery with the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, who said that 10 percent of Americans lack broadband but 49 percent of those Americans live in rural areas.

Credit Office of Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Office of Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Gov. Asa Hutchinson at the 2017 Rural Development Conference in Hot Springs told stories from a childhood spent on a farm in rural Arkansas.

“It’s not just about making internet available so people can download Netflix videos and watch them,” said Lowery, who described lack of broadband as a serious economic and quality of life issue, since it affects whether people can work remotely and what kinds of jobs they can take.  He said so far, he hasn’t heard people describe lack of broadband as a dealbreaker for living in rural Arkansas, but said he frequently hears about it as a subject of concern.

Other participants said quality of life in rural Arkansas may hinge on attracting better-paying jobs with stable employers.  That includes high-tech, according to State Rep. Carlton Wing (R-North Little Rock).

“Look at how far Arkansas has advanced with our computer coding.  We’re jumping well into the 21st century,” said Wing, who predicted that half of the top 10 jobs of the near future haven’t even been invented yet.

“I grew up in rural Arkansas.  In Gravette, a small town of a thousand,” noted Gov. Asa Hutchinson during his keynote address.  He recalled a childhood spent on a farm, learning about hard work, cleaning out a chicken house, taking care of cattle and helping neighbors when they needed it.

“You realize very quickly that it is the church, it is the school, it is the Friday night sports.  The things that hold a community together are very, very important,” he said. 

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