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Main Street

Two multicounty regions in Oklahoma chosen for OSU pilot program designed to strengthen rural economies

An innovative initiative to help rural communities build their capacity for strengthening retail, tourism and entertainment sectors, which in turn provides jobs and business opportunities that frequently boost rural economies.

Oklahoma State University Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources experts identified two multicounty regions in the state for participation in CREATE BRIDGES, a program designed to build up rural economies. 

The Sandstone Hills region includes Creek, Osage and Pawnee counties, while the Crossing Borders region is made up of Adair, Cherokee, Delaware, Mayes and Sequoyah counties. 

CREATE BRIDGES was established with the help of a $2.7 million grant from Walmart to the Southern Rural Development Center, and launched on August 30 in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arkansas.  

As part of this innovative initiative, researchers from OSU, the University of Kentucky and the University of Arkansas System will collaborate to develop, refine and pilot a process to help rural communities build their capacity for strengthening the retail, tourism and entertainment sectors, which provide jobs and business opportunities that frequently boost rural economies. 

The program also will look at workforce solutions to retain workers and promote from within. 

“The Sandstone Hills region was chosen for CREATE BRIDGES, in part, because it currently hosts several collaborative, grassroots, locally driven efforts such as the 100 Mile Yard Sale,” said Dave Shideler, OSU Cooperative Extension community development specialist. 

“There is a clear desire in the Sandstone Hills region to grow tourism opportunities by capitalizing on some natural resources and the cultural heritage of the three Sovereign Nations in the area,” Shideler said. “CREATE BRIDGES will assist the region in developing a framework for accomplishing that vision.” 

Meanwhile, the Crossing Borders region has worked together previously through the Stronger Economies Together program, a rural economic development initiative on which CREATE BRIDGES is based. 

“The Crossing Borders region wants to develop a plan to promote the Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway that connects its lakes, rivers and wooded areas,” Shideler said. “The application was submitted by the Cherokee Nation, which will be a strong and effective partner in this region.” 

Generally, the retail sector in rural communities often fills local needs and serves as an entry point for new workers. To assist in employee retention, this program will support employers in defining career paths and additional training needed for advancement. 

“Retail and hospitality industries play key roles in our rural communities by generating critical tax revenue for city services, providing accessible and flexible jobs for community residents, and helping to create a sense of place for our rural towns,” Shideler said. “CREATE BRIDGES focuses on both workforce and the needs and issues facing businesses.” 

Shideler and OSU Cooperative Extension assistant specialist Sara Siems will work with state partners to facilitate a retail academy for regional leaders and a business retention and expansion program. They also will coordinate with regional workforce investment boards to identify opportunities for workforce training focused on incumbent and new workers. 

“Through CREATE BRIDGES, our goal is to create innovative solutions to rural workforce and economic development issues,” Siems said. “That might mean addressing issues around transportation, so people can get to work, or marketing and productivity issues that impact business revenues.” 

CREATE BRIDGES is being developed by a team of experts including Shideler, Siems, University of Kentucky’s Alison Davis, University of Arkansas’ Stacey McCullough and Julianne Dunn, and the Southern Rural Development Center’s Rachel Welborn and Grace Langford. 

Additionally, Quisto Settle, a researcher and evaluator at OSU, will measure the impact of the initiative, facilitate peer-to-peer learning and refine the process for implementation in other regions nationally. 

CREATE BRIDGES builds upon Stronger Economies Together, 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. 

For more information about CREATE BRIDGES, visit and contact Shideler at 405-744-6170 or

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