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University of Kentucky uses pilot program Create Bridges to strengthen rural economies

By Carol Lea Spence
Special to NKyTribune

Retail, tourism and entertainment provide jobs and business opportunities that often drive rural economies. The University of Kentucky is part of Create Bridges, a pilot program to strengthen retail, accommodations, tourism and entertainment industries in rural Kentucky.


With funding from the Walmart Foundation, UK agricultural economics professor Alison Davis, in partnership with the Southern Rural Development Center, created the program. The UK team and collaborative partners at the University of Arkansas and Oklahoma State University will develop, refine and pilot a process to help rural communities build their capacity for strengthening their retail and hospitality sectors.

Retail is an important sector that serves local needs as well as being an entry point to the workforce system for new workers. Retail businesses often find it difficult to keep workers for extended periods, which leaves them with a shortage of shift leaders, floor supervisors and managers. Create Bridges will look at workforce solutions to keep workers and to be able to promote from within.

“We’re not only focusing on workforce development, but also on retail business needs and the issues they’re facing in rural communities,” said Davis, who is director of the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, part of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Create Bridges builds upon the Stronger Economies Together initiative, a collaborative effort across 32 states led by the Southern Rural Development Center that helps rural counties work together to develop and implement an economic development plan for their multi-county region.

Over this summer, regions comprising two to five predominantly rural counties can apply to participate in the two-year program. Regions that apply should have some type of retail hub that pulls workers from outside areas. One selected region will have access to new or adapted workforce programs, financial incentives for employee and employer participation and funding to support small seed projects.

UK and its state partners, Goodwill Industries of Kentucky and the Kentucky Retail Federation, will facilitate a Retail Academy for regional leaders and a Business Retention and Expansion Program. They will coordinate with regional workforce investment boards to identify opportunities for workforce training focused on incumbent and new workers.

There are funds available for such things as daycare, transportation and food, so people will not be inconvenienced and will be able to participate. There are also funds for businesses to try to identify an innovative solution to provide better opportunities for their workers.

“Whether it’s providing education, or whether it’s providing carpooling options so people can get to work, or providing other types of benefits, we’re going to try to incentivize innovative thinking,” Davis said.

Kentucky regions may apply to participate in the program at http://bit.ly/2Kfl1WH.

Carol Lea Spence is agriculture communications specialist at the University of Kentucky 

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