Last week Uncommon Communities made a trip to Van Buren County to assess the progress Clinton and Fairfield Bay had made in accomplishing Uncommon Communities initiatives.

Uncommon Communities is a community and economic development program developed by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute that combines the wisdom and methodology of Dr. Vaughn Grisham, professor emeritus of sociology and founding director of the McLean Institute for Community development at the University of Mississippi, and Breakthrough Solutions partnership under the direction of Dr. Mark Peterson at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Uncommon Communities exists as a three-year comprehensive program, currently in its pilot stage, to produce a group of community leaders who are equipped to assess, plan, visualize and mobilize citizenry to work together in the areas of economic development, education, workforce development and quality of life.

Uncommon Communities pilot program focuses on five counties in the vicinity of the Rockefeller Institute: Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell. All of these counties are largely rural and have poverty rates between 17 percent and 23 percent; lost 1,249 jobs between 2007 and 2013; and have unemployment rates that are 109 percent of the state average.

Still in the Pilot Program phase, the Uncommon Communities model is designed to be scalable and replicable, and is intended to become statewide after a successful two-year pilot.

Uncommon Communities relationship with Van Buren County came together through a process.

In 2014 a small group of concerned citizens in the county came together and formed a non-profit organization, We Love Van Buren County, to help revitalize and move our community forward in economic development, tourism and quality of life. Connections made through this group lead them to a partnership with Peterson. After a year of town hall meetings, cleaning, painting, fundraising and planning this group of volunteers received the SOAR award from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension at their Breakthrough Solutions Conference in Little Rock.

We Love Van Buren County evolved and in 2015 Van Buren county was asked to participate in Uncommon Communities. Since then, attendees to the program met on a bi-monthly basis where they received training, support and resource information necessary to accomplish county and community goals that will assist them in making their communities “Uncommon.”

The following Leaders in Van Buren county have been participating in this program since its inception, who then graduated from the program on Friday: Van Buren County Judge Roger Hooper, Van Buren County Justice of the Peace, District 4, Mary Phillips, City of Clinton Mayor Richard McCormac, City of Fairfield Bay Mayor Paul Wellenberger, We Love Van Buren County Chairman Jackie Sikes, Fairfield Bay Community Club Director Rocky Nickles, Fairfield Bay City Councilmen Don Bailey and Fairfield Bay Community Education Director Dr. Catherine Swift.

[An earlier, and the print, version of the story did not include Van Buren County Justice of the Peace, District 4, Mary Phillips as a participant. This has been corrected here. - ed.]