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story.lead_photo.caption Hot Spring County Judge Dennis Thornton tells the crowd gathered for the unveiling of the Hot Spring County Conversations 10-year Strategic Plan that more than 5,000 residents have been involved in the initiative thus far. “Join us. … Get involved. … Be a part of Hot Spring County’s future,” he said. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

— It was standing room only in the Great Room at College of the Ouachitas on Aug. 20 as Hot Spring County citizens gathered for the unveiling of the Hot Spring County Conversations 10-Year Strategic Plan. County Judge Dennis Thornton smiled as he welcomed the crowd, declaring, “This is a great day for Hot Spring County.

“This has been a long time coming,” Thornton said. “It has been a labor, but a labor of love. All six municipalities in the county — Friendship, Dawson, Midway, Perla, Rockport and Malvern — have worked together to make this happen. We are all working toward a more prosperous Hot Spring County. … We are all working for the greater good of Hot Spring County.”

Guest speakers included Gov. Asa Hutchinson; Rex Nelson, senior editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; Jon Chadwell, executive director of the Newport Economic Development Commission; and Shelby Fiegel, managing director of the Center for Community and Economic Development and the Community Development Institute, University of Central Arkansas.

The Hot Spring County Conversations initiative began in 2017 as an effort to discover the needs of citizens and to identify community leaders. Thornton said that after two countywide meetings and surveys of representatives throughout the county in November 2017 and February 2018, five strategic priorities for the county were identified: education and workforce development, job creation, family recreation and youth activities, health and public safety, and housing and real estate, including downtown development.

Additional meetings were held in communities within the boundaries of the county’s five school districts —Bismarck, Magnet Cove, Glen Rose, Ouachita and Malvern — with each of those groups coming up with their local priorities as well.

“UCA is excited to have been a part of this process,” said Fiegel, whose staff collected information from the meetings, along with the survey data, analyzed it and reported back to Thornton and his executive committee. “It’s been a very special journey. It’s been a grassroots effort. More than 1,500 Hot Spring County residents were directly involved. … There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears, … but there have now been five areas identified for the county, and in addition, five school districts have identified their individual primary needs and goals.

“Hot Spring County is poised for exponential growth because of the support of many partners,” Fiegel said. “The future for Hot Spring County is truly bright.”

Chadwell also has been involved in the Hot Spring County Conversations initiative since the beginning.

“Jon inspired us so much,” Thornton said. “He has laid down a blueprint for us to follow.”

Chadwell applauded Hot Spring County residents for being “intentionally inclusive.”

“You have trained for the marathon. You are ready to start the race, and you will be able to finish in a major way,” he said.

“You will hear rural America is dying … it’s a dinosaur,” Chadwell said, “but if you don’t save your community, no one else will.

“You have come together from every part of the county, and you have created a proactive plan that will be strong enough to save your part of rural America. Continue to include each other intentionally, and bring others into the fold. Congratulations for all your hard work. I can’t wait to see where your journey takes you.”

Nelson grew up in Arkadelphia, in neighboring Clark County.

“I am inspired by what’s going on in Hot Spring County, and I am interested in where the state is going,” he said.

“From 1940 to 1960, Arkansas lost population. Then in the 1960s, things finally started to turn around, and we began gaining in population. When the 2020 census is taken next year, I think we will see Arkansas continuing to grow. We know there are three major areas that are fast growing — Northwest Arkansas, the Little Rock metro area and northeast Arkansas around Jonesboro,” Nelson said.

“I think we need an area south of Little Rock that needs to begin to grow,” he said. “I grew up in Arkadelphia and admit my bias, but I think the next area of growth can be the triangle created from Malvern to Arkadelphia to Hot Springs. I think that will be the south-Arkansas growth area.

“Within this area we have a national park, a national forest, many popular lakes and a major interstate that goes right though the area. This should be the next boom area in Arkansas.”

Hutchinson told the audience he wanted to “brag on Hot Spring County and the way you have worked together on this strategic plan. … This says it all about your willingness to make a difference in your community and county,” he said.

“Hats off to you for what you have done. You have an opportunity to build the future. If you create opportunities for young people, they will stay here,” Hutchinson said.

“Congratulations on your 10-year strategic plan,” he said. “Your strategic plan mirrors and supports our priorities on the state level — education and workforce, job creation and quality of life.

“Over the past four years, our graduation rate in Arkansas high schools has improved. … Now 88 percent [of students] graduate from high school. We are ranked 14th in the nation.”

He said many high school graduates go onto four-year colleges, while others choose to learn a trade at a two-year college.

“The College of the Ouachitas is a great partner in workforce education and will continue to be,” Hutchinson said. “Many of your local high schools are teaching coding. … Students are taking computer science. Hot Spring County, you are a partner in that. … Give the students opportunities.”

Hutchinson said the Arkansas unemployment rate is at 3.4 percent.

“There have been over 90,000 jobs created in the state since I became governor. You continue to be able to expand existing businesses and to bring in new small businesses. Small businesses are needed here in Hot Spring County. Continue to market Hot Spring County. … Continue to sell yourself every day. We will help bring people here,” he said.

“Quality of life is important. Tourism is Arkansas’

No. 2 industry. You’ve got a great quality of life here,” Hutchinson said. “You have also identified broadband — widening internet and cellphone service. That is a state priority, too. We have just received a $25 million grant to expand broadband in rural Arkansas.

“You have a plan. … You have done all the preparation. … Now finally, follow through. … Make sure this strategic plan is implemented.”

In his closing remarks, Thornton said, “The plan has been laid. Now the work begins. You, the citizens of Hot Spring County, have laid the very blueprint of this plan. Because of you, we will have a brighter tomorrow for our children and grandchildren.”

More information on Hot Spring County Conversations may be found on Facebook at facebook.com/hscconversations.

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