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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 full-fledged 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 grass-roots, 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."

State Desk on 02/10/2019

Print Headline: Pine Bluff chosen to get help in applying for grants

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