Vickers talks importance of community development following training
Neal Vickers--who currently serves as Executive Director for the Trumann Chamber of Commerce and Director of Economic Devlopment--has been involved in Chamber work for 30 years, but in that time he had not realized just how important community development is until he attended the Community Development Institute recently. The Community Development Institute (CDI) is a comprehensive training program for community and economic developers offered by the University of Central Arkansas. The training program lasts one week a year for three years. Vickers attended his first year's training and said calling the experience immensely beneficial "would be an understatement."
Vickers said when he left for the training program, he did so thinking the overwhelming majority of his job involved economic development. He came back knowing his job is 80 percent community development and 20 percent economic development.
"I learned the community is your product," Vickers said. "Community development improves your product, and economic development markets your product. It's very difficult to market, in their words, 'a crappy product.' When you are charged with marketing your community to a prospective business, the challenges you face beyond economic development are quality of life issues." These involve both positives--such as parks, sports programs, schools, retail shopping, and city services--and negatives such as dilapidated and derelict properties. "I learned how important those are to be successful in economic development," Vickers said.
Vickers said things like tearing down dilapidated properties, rehabilitating properties, and having a good tax base that can adequately support a community's infrastructure needs are important "because when a business or industry is looking at your community as a place to locate to, many do it without our knowledge." In terms of attracting business, cities must look inviting because they never know when a business may be considering them for a new location. According to Vickers, the old model was that a potential business would contact the chamber directly and work with the Economic Development Commission and Planning and Zoning, while today businesses will go to the Economic Development Commission site selection website and look at properties without the city's knowledge--and as with any type of selection, their job is to elminate potential sites to narrow the field of choices.
"What I learned is the condition of the community is the most important aspect we can address that is within our control," Vickers said. "The reissuing of bonds done a year ago to do infrastructure improvements to the community are some of the most important things that could have been done. I credit the citizens of this community for voting for that and having the foresight to realize what it does for the community."
Vickers said he also learned the importance of not taking existing businesses for granted because the majority of new jobs are developed by existing industries. Vickers said that's why he makes sure to spend time visiting with businesses in town, asking what they need, and telling them about tax incentives for job expansion.
Vickers said hearing from and working with people from 47 other communities at CDI gave him perspective and helped him realize Trumann has a lot going for it that many of their communities did not. "It charged my batteries and strengthened my resolve to work with my hometown to continue to make it a better place," Vickers said. "I came back with a tool belt with more tools and as a better person for our community."