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Jonesboro, Arkansas—The Jewel of the Region

—Ted Natt, Community Success Journalist

The word “complacency” is not in the vocabulary of the people of Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Simply stated, Jonesboro has a strongly performing economy and quality-of-life amenities that make it a truly vibrant community of about 68,000 residents.  The reason? Jonesboro is home to effective community leaders who constantly challenge each other to reach new heights. In fact, the community has organized itself so well that the region is only one of 54 metropolitan areas (out of 372) in the United States to have already regained its total employed workforce in the wake of the recession.

“We’re on a great roll right now. We’ve been blessed,” Mayor Harold Perrin says. “But complacency will kill you. You’ve got to keep going all the time.” In that vein, the people of Jonesboro have embarked on a quest to establish their community as the jewel of the southeast through their Vision 2030 strategic plan.

The plan not only provides a working framework for responsible growth over the next 20 years, it outlines decisions about planning and development that reflect local values, will enhance quality of life and can create better economic opportunities to sustain Jonesboro and the surrounding region.

Building Communities, an economic development strategic planning firm helped community leaders create the plan and determine the final 15 economic development strategies and 11 quality-of-life initiatives. “The best part of the process was that it was quantitative. We didn’t arbitrarily pick the strategies,” says Heather Clements, the city’s grants administrator. “Local stakeholders assigned a number to each strategy.”

Even though downtown development received low scores, community leaders still decided it was important to implement that strategy. “Common sense always has to come into it,” Clements says. “We also included value-added agriculture as a strategy. We could not have excluded that living in rice land.”

Brian Cole, president of Building Communities, says the knowledge of local stakeholders is crucial to the process. “Community leaders in Jonesboro selected their strategies based on the likelihood of successful implementation,” Cole says. “It is clear that they put the advancement of the entire community – not just individual projects – first. There is no doubt in my mind that they will accomplish the goals set forth in Vision 2030.”

Perrin says plan implementation will begin immediately. “We’re not going to sit on this plan and let it collect dust on the shelf,” he says. “We’re going to take what we have here and break it down. I’m starting to appoint various committees already.” Those committees include – but are not limited to – housing, transportation, economic development, education and health care.

The twin economic pillars of education and health care not only help create and maintain a resilient economic base, they form the basis of a high quality of life for current and future generations. Arkansas State University – with an enrollment of about 20,000 students – was ranked in 2011 by U.S. News and World Report as a Top Tier 1 university in the South, as well as one of 60 elite institutions of higher education in the United States.

In addition, two local hospitals serve a 23-county service territory framed by St. Louis, Little Rock and Memphis. Consistent, professional economic development activities have successfully recruited Fortune 500 companies such as Frito Lay, Unilever and Nestle over the past two decades. “We decided to concentrate of the food processing industry about 15 years ago. We didn’t want to be spinning our wheels chasing every lead and it paid off,” Perrin says. “The municipalities, county and utilities work very closely to attract industry and new jobs to our community.”

They have been so successful that roughly 40 percent of the community’s labor force commutes from outside the county.  “On any given day, we have 30,000 visitors,” Clements says. On most weekends, the “population” can swell to 150,000 as people arrive in droves to enjoy the downtown, historic and cultural amenities. But community leaders are not satisfied. They know that Jonesboro runs the risk of being loved to death, because those amenities threaten to compromise the livability of the city.

That is the main reason they chose to work with Building Communities, which steered the community-driven process. “I was very impressed by how quantitative it was, how organized it was and how quickly we got it done,” Clements says. “I just love the fact that Building Communities came in and we had a draft plan in four days. Fast is good.”

Clements attributes that speed to the professional, knowledgeable and experienced staff at Building Communities. “They are engaging. You get buy-in from the local stakeholders because the Building Communities people are so good,” she says. “It wasn’t a haphazard or arbitrary process. It was awesome. We’re having a blast.” Perrin seconds Clements’ assessment. “The Building Communities people have a great degree of visionary thinking and that helped us take Vision 2030 to the next level,” he says. “The whole process worked extremely well. When they were through, the city council about gave them a standing ovation.”

Cole appreciates the kind words, but credits local stakeholders for galvanizing the direction of the community.
“Vision 2030 is a prime example of different strategies and projects coming together under one broader vision,” he says. “I believe the plan will pull the community along in a manner that not only accomplishes individual projects, but creates an outcome greater than was originally envisioned.”


©2017 Building Communities, Inc.