The Delta Technology Education Center in Dumas represents a city’s “self-initiated comeback” after the effects of a devastating tornado.
The city’s efforts to pull itself up and redefine its local economy after storms destroyed much of the city’s business infrastructure on Feb. 24, 2007, and the loss of several businesses since, have earned it recognition as an Arkansas Business City of Distinction in the category of Technology Advancements.
Denied funding by the Federal Emergency Management Agency following those storms, Dumas “self-initiated its own comeback,” according to Ken Shea, chairman of the Dumas Economic Development Foundation. The city, the Dumas Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Dumas worked with state and private agencies to develop DTEC and refocus the local economy on technology.
The center includes classrooms used by several area colleges, a one-stop center for Arkansas Workforce Services, a public computer lab and a youth services agency. The computer lab includes 24 stations plus additional Wi-Fi stations. CenturyLink provides the Wi-Fi for free. The city has received regional and state grants and private donations of roughly $1 million for the center.
“From the beginning, the city has been involved with civic leadership in the technology/education project as a key to economic development,” Shea said.
Merchants & Farmers Bank provided its former downtown Dumas location at a reduced cost to the city, which owns the facility and leases it to the Delta Technology Education Center Board of Directors. The bank maintains a drive-through branch there, and the rent it pays provides income for the center. A Delta Regional Authority grant of $307,000 enabled the city to purchase the property. A $250,000 Community Development Block grant provided funds for renovation, and a $250,000 grant from the Arkansas Workforce Investment Board for operations.
Four colleges are planning on utilizing classroom space at the center — Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, DeWitt campus; the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s College of Technology in McGehee; Southeast Arkansas College in Pine Bluff; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
This past summer, renovation of the secondary building began. The renovation was funded through grants and donations totaling more than $300,000. The secondary building will provide 3,000 SF of advanced technology classroom space for local colleges and businesses. It will be equipped for video conferencing and “immersive telepresence,” defined as a “tightly integrated set of visual, audio and network technologies and services that together deliver an immersive, life-like communication experience.”
Local partners who made renovation of the secondary building possible include Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, Merchants & Farmers, Vision Dumas, the Schexnayder Education Fund, Simmons First Bank of Dumas, Bank of Star City, Gill Law Firm, Flowers & Gifts by William, Meador Pharmacy, ASC Properties, Southland Management, Clarion Publishing, Entergy Arkansas, AEDC, the state of Arkansas, Delta Community Foundation, Winrock International and Dumas EDF.
Shea said Dumas is doing all it can to update its workforce to meet 21st century needs. The impact of the tornado was followed by the losses of two major industries and several small businesses in the past two years, and the local economy was devastated.He believes enhancing educational opportunities will help the city recruit new industry and businesses, help retain jobs and provide additional opportunities for entrepreneurs.
“Desha County has 930 self-employed entrepreneurs, and if their opportunities can be expanded, additional employment will result,” he said.
Dumas development comes as good news to Ainsworth, one of the contributing business partners. Ainsworth purchased the old Arkat building in February 2010, and since then has invested roughly $10 million in capital improvements and increased capacity for the Dumas plant. The number of full-time employees has increased from 67 to 109 with 34 opening as of this past summer.
Joy Sherry, director of human resources for Ainsworth, based in Meadville, Penn., said the basic skills needed to be successful in the Dumas plant positions include math and computer skills.
“Our success in Dumas is highly dependent on a skilled workforce,” she said. “The ability to use the resources of the Delta Technology Center has and will continue to have a large impact on our ability to develop that skilled workforce.”
Sherry said the city of Dumas has set an example in how to set the stage for the development of highly skilled workers.
“It is amazing what this small community has been able to do in not only developing the building, but getting all of the educational providers to work together to develop our current and future workforce,” she said.