PB cho­sen to get help in ap­ply­ing for grants

Goal is cen­ter for en­trepreneur­ship

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS - DALE EL­LIS

PINE BLUFF — Go For­ward Pine Bluff took an­other step for­ward last week with the an­nounce­ment that it is among nine cities na­tion­ally to be se­lected to re­ceive tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance in ap­ply­ing for up to $750,000 in grant fund­ing from the U.S. Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion through its i6 Chal­lenge grant pro­gram.

The Cen­ter on Ru­ral In­no­va­tion and its sis­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion, Ru­ral In­no­va­tion Strate­gies Inc., chose the or­ga­ni­za­tions from a field of 130 ap­pli­cants.

The Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion has $21 mil­lion in fund­ing avail­able in fis­cal 2019 to as­sist smaller com­mu­ni­ties in es­tab­lish­ing cen­ters for in­no­va­tion and en­trepreneur­ship. The cen­ters are in­tended to in­crease the rate at which in­no­va­tions, ideas, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and re­search are trans­lated into prod­ucts, ser­vices, vi­able com­pa­nies and jobs.

Pine Bluff is the only com­mu­nity in Arkansas cho­sen to re­ceive the tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance. Other com­mu­ni­ties cho­sen were Cape Gi­rardeau, Mo.; Em­po­ria, Kan.; Pitts­burg, Kan.; Grin­nell, Iowa; In­de­pen­dence, Ore.; Red Wing, Minn.; Tra­verse City, Mich.; and Wil­son, N.C.

“These nine com­mu­ni­ties rep­re­sent the best of what ru­ral Amer­ica has to of­fer: strong vi­sions for the fu­ture, solid in­fras­truc­ture, ex­cel­lent qual­ity of life, and the

tal­ented work­force needed to en­gage at a high-level in the dig­i­tal econ­omy,” said Matt Dunne, founder of the Cen­ter on Ru­ral In­no­va­tion and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ru­ral In­no­va­tion Strate­gies Inc., in a news re­lease an­nounc­ing the se­lec­tions.

The Cen­ter on Ru­ral In­no­va­tion is a non­profit based in Ver­mont that was founded by for­mer Google ex­ec­u­tive Matt Dunne. Its pur­pose is to as­sist ru­ral re­gions around the na­tion in the cre­ation of in­no­va­tion hubs through its Ru­ral In­no­va­tion Ini­tia­tive, and link­ing those hubs to help them share in­no­va­tions, ideas and best prac­tices.

This marks the in­au­gu­ral year for the ini­tia­tive to as­sist com­mu­ni­ties in se­cur­ing fund­ing through the i6 grant.

Mil­dred Franco, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of The Gen­er­a­tor, an in­no­va­tion hub pow­ered by Go For­ward Pine Bluff, said the part­ner­ship will pro­vide valu­able as­sis­tance as the Pine Bluff hub de­vel­ops from its em­bry­onic stage into a full-blown re­gional hub for small-busi­ness de­vel­op­ment.

Most ur­ban ar­eas have re­cov­ered in the 10 years af­ter the eco­nomic crash of 2008, Franco said, but ru­ral ar­eas have lagged be­hind or in many cases de­clined.

Mid­dle Amer­ica has missed out on some of the most lu­cra­tive jobs be­cause many jobs in the high-tech and fi­nan­cial sec­tors are con­cen­trated on the East and West coasts, she said. That’s left ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties lag­ging in the na­tion’s mid­sec­tion, which his­tor­i­cally has de­pended on agri­cul­ture and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

“There’s a big gap be­tween ru­ral and ur­ban. A big gap,” Franco said. “So at the same time you have the West Coast and the East Coast in need of tal­ent, but much of the tal­ent can­not af­ford to live in either one of these places be­cause it’s so ex­pen­sive.

“Thanks to tech­nol­ogy, we don’t need to be some­where to do our work, es­pe­cially if it’s tech­nol­ogy-type work.”

The prob­lem for com­mu­ni­ties like Pine Bluff, Franco said, is the lack of a work­force ed­u­cated in the dig­i­tal econ­omy and a lack of in­fras­truc­ture to sup­port such a work­force. The in­tent is to be­gin ad­dress­ing those needs in Pine Bluff by ex­pand­ing The Gen­er­a­tor into a fullfledged in­no­va­tion hub, hope­fully with grant fund­ing from the Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Franco said Pine Bluff in­tends to ap­ply for $500,000 in grant fund­ing from the Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Dunne’s or­ga­ni­za­tion iden­ti­fies or­ga­ni­za­tions that can ben­e­fit from the Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s i6 Chal­lenge grant and pro­vides tech­ni­cal sup­port for those or­ga­ni­za­tions. It does not make de­ci­sions on who re­ceives i6 grant fund­ing.

“What we are do­ing is con­nect­ing with com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try that are do­ing all the right things to be in a strong po­si­tion to de­velop those kinds of in­no­va­tion cen­ters and to ben­e­fit from the re­sources the EDA pro­vides,” Dunne said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “We’re not writ­ing the grants for these com­mu­ni­ties. We be­lieve they have the ca­pac­ity and, frankly, much bet­ter knowl­edge of how to ar­tic­u­late the in­cred­i­ble, unique value that their com­mu­nity has.”

Dunne said Pine Bluff’s ef­forts to stage an eco­nomic re­cov­ery helped dis­tin­guish it from other ap­pli­cants.

“Pine Bluff has been do­ing a re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary grass­roots, bot­tom-up vi­sion­ary process for how they can move their econ­omy for­ward,” he said. “Pine Bluff was known as a cen­ter for African-Amer­i­can en­trepreneur­ship for a long time, but like many ru­ral places has been strug­gling eco­nom­i­cally, par­tic­u­larly since 2008.”

Ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion from the Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the i6 Chal­lenge Pro­gram Sup­port grant has awarded $42 mil­lion from 2014 through March 30, 2018, with an ad­di­tional $54 mil­lion in match­ing funds com­mit­ted to 88 projects in 36 states.

In 2015, Arkansas State Univer­sity in Jones­boro re­ceived $500,000 in fund­ing in the sec­ond year of the i6 Chal­lenge grant to de­velop its East Arkansas In­no­va­tion Sys­tem in­no­va­tion hub, now known as A-State In­no­vate.

Ty Keller, di­rec­tor of A-State In­no­vate, said the grant funds — the fi­nal in­stall­ment of which will be paid this year — has pro­vided money to pay half of his salary, and for rent for the fa­cil­ity it uses, the pur­chase of equip­ment and sup­plies, and pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment fees.

“We’ve had other part­ners, of course, to help with the cost of run­ning the cen­ter, but none of this would have been pos­si­ble with­out the i6 grant,” Keller said. “With­out that grant, I don’t think A-State In­no­vate would have got­ten off the ground.”

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