By Dr. William D. Downs Jr.

That’s how the entrance signs to the city have read for more than 30 years. Why doesn’t Arkadelphia grow? That was the question I posed to students as a class project this spring for the Advanced Reporting class. And for the next three days you will read the results of an in-depth report that has succeeded in getting these six students out of the classroom and into a real-life situation. It has been my pleasure to serve as the students’ managing editor.

The information for the three-part series was gathered in three ways: First, 150 open ended surveys were mailed to a cross-section of Arkadelphia residents, which generated 79 responses, a highly respectable 53 percent return. Second, townspeople were invited to visit with the class, which met twice a week. During these interviews, students gathered additional information. The third step was to visit as many as possible of the survey respondents who had indicated on their response that they would be willing to be
interviewed.

In addition, an e-mail survey of all OBU students generated 348 responses. The last two weeks of the semester have been devoted to organizing the responses in what we hope you will find to be a highly readable format. Rather than structure the responses in a standard news story, we decided it would be best to present the information in “blocks,” most of which begin with a bold-faced subhead to give readers an idea about the content of each section.

Because of the volume of questionnaires that were completed and returned, it was not possible to include statements from all the respondents. But as each response was received and each interview was submitted, the major trends began to appear early in the process: Jobs were No. 1 but there was much more, with all factors ultimately coming together to provide a road map for growth. The liquor issue turned out to be no issue at all. It was obvious that respondents were clearly aware that there were many other more pressing issues that needed to be addressed.

Why did we do this? One reason was that it was a highly unusual civic journalism project that would push students out of their comfort zones to conduct interviews with Arkadelphia residents who share our concern for the future of our city. A second reason was that we really cared-professor and students alike. Which provides a third reason for the project: What the students did could actually make a difference. A fourth reason was one that we did not expect at the start of the semester: With the organization of a countywide Strategic Planning Commission, led by Dr. Wesley Kluck, the research would not only be published in the Daily Siftings Herald but would also be used as a foundation for the Commission’s planning. There is a fifth reason, too. I’ve just finished my 40th year at OBU-that’s 80 semesters. And Vera and I love it here. So do the students. But we must take action.

Admittedly, the students became increasingly apprehensive as the surveys were received and interviews were conducted. “Will this hurt anyone’s feelings?” I remember one student asking. And the answer is “no.” The purpose of the study and the stories that will run this week is to motivate all of us – Arkadelphia-area residents and students – to join in a united effort to prove that Arkadelphia CAN grow and that it can become an even better place to call home.

Brown Hardman, former chair of the CCIC, may have said it best: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be where you are because where you are right now is a result of what you have or have not done.”

Dr. William D. Downs Jr. is chair of the Department of Mass Communication at Ouachita Baptist University.