Community leaders and volunteers held discussions and planning at the Jan. 23 meeting for Growth of the Rural Ozarks, which included dates for construction projects and programs sponsored by GRO.
Now in its second year, GRO has made it a mission to change the community with ideas toward economic development, with programs such as internship opportunities for students and the I Heart Salem movement, along with other community service projects and beautification movements. The GRO program entails three communities in the Ozark region – Salem, Sarcoxie and Marshfield – and starting in 2018 Buffalo and Aurora will also become part of the program, according to GRO consultant Hirshue Mahalaha.
“It’s taken us 18 months to reach a place where we have a really strong plan,” Mahalaha said to attendees. “There are a lot of pieces that took a long time to set in place. I think the plan that is in place for 2018, and objectives for 2018, are really powerful. Across the board, whether it’s working with our students, helping recruit and bring new business, helping local businesses, supporting tourism through signage and helping build out our main square area… all of that is part of our conversation.”
In a revitalization effort made in part with the city, GRO officially recognized an April 1 date for groundbreaking in the town square to update sidewalks and powerlines, as well as finding a committed individual for an economic development position by the end of February.
“We have posted a position for an economic development person in the city, and it’s taken us six months to hopefully come close to finding someone…It’s taken us too long,” Mahalaha said. “The city is now committed, and by the end of February a person will be in that position. Period. Maybe it’s not the full-term person, but we will find someone to start driving economic development activities for the town.”
When asked by Mahalaha about headway made in the community, a leader for the I Heart Salem program, Dr. Bernie Sirois, brought information about the recently implemented Salem High School construction trades program, which will be effective beginning with the new school year this fall. This program has very similar goals to that of GRO, with the hopes of improving the community by revitalizing areas of Salem. Sirois discussed how SHS principal Marty Anderson is currently meeting with local vendors in the hopes of buying tools and equipment for the new program while “staying as local as he can.”
Along with the progression of GRO and its programs, Mahalaha discussed survey results that were conducted in 2017 to program leaders over the effectiveness and overall progress of the GRO program in Salem, which he said received the lowest scores and ratings of communities involved.
“We sort of expected that,” Mahalaha said. “There are reasons that we knew that would be the case. We wanted to see if community members were seeing value out of the program, and if we are not getting value we need to do things differently.”
Mahalaha said that one of the biggest reasons was because of local participation.
“Each community has a different profile of people of who are engaging in this process, and that has a lot to do with how much progress a community makes,” he said. “That is the reality of economic development. Knowing this, we can do something about it.”
Supporting established local business and bringing in new ones is another hope of the GRO program. Mahalaha pitched ideas to the group, including a 911 Business Hotline, where businesses that are at risk of failure in the immediate future can contact the program, which will then evaluate and deploy the best resources available to help. This, coupled with business incentives to establish in Salem, would make owning a business in Salem safer and easier for those wishing to have a foothold in the city.
GRO has implemented some projects and efforts in the city, but Mahalaha knows it has been difficult up to this point.
“In economic development, it is never easy,” he said. “Most communities find themselves in economic turmoil because it has taken them decades to get here. To think that we can pivot in six months or a year… it’s going to take people a while to get people to move from what they are used to doing.”
Mahalaha spoke to the group about their overall plan and focus for the year, which is to drive more visibility, more recruitment and leaders and more development tools and funding. The most important of these pushes, Mahalaha stressed, is the need for strong leadership.
“As much of a cliché as it is, economic development comes down to one thing; leadership,” Mahalaha said. “If you have good, strong leadership, you will move mountains. I know Salem has great leadership, but we haven’t been able to tap into that group. You have to step up. We only need three strong leaders, and that’s people who are frustrated, who want to see something done and to see something done tomorrow. If you are one of the people and you’re not involved in GRO…we need you.”
For more information regarding the GRO Salem program contact Ray Walden at (573) 729- 4811, and for information on the I Heart Salem program contact (573) 453-2500.