The ongoing community effort to help find a viable use for the vacant Mena Middle School building continues to gather steam. There have been many in community -- from business and community leaders to consultants to high school students (see adjoining article by Mena High Teacher Melissa Lunsford), who have devoted significant time, talent and energy to brainstorm and develop ideas for repurposing the vacant building currently owned by Walter Dietz.
Recently, the interested individuals gathered at the County Extension office to hear the vision and ideas not only of students but also Chris Jones, Executive Director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in Little Rock. Jones took a tour of the site and then joined a group discussion with students and leaders. "It's impressive the groundwork you have done so far," Jones told the group.
The mission of the Arkansas Innovation Hub is "Improving the Lives of Arkansans by inspiring innovation and expanding opportunity". One of the ideas among the many for the building in Mena is potentially a public-private partnership that might create or incorporate an "Innovation Hub" style function for at least part of the structure that could benefit the local economy and the improve the quality of life. The vision for such an "incubator" model would offer spaces and infrastructure that could attract investors, encourage entrepreneurs, start-up businesses, as well as education and non-profit groups alike. Jones shared several ideas on success stories his innovation group has been involved in Little Rock. Several in the audience took notes, as Jones offered practical advice on getting something like this going in Mena, including pursuing funding and investors. He spoke of the importance of a proper inventory of our community strengths and assets as well as a needs assessment.
Another idea that would bring more commercial viability in attracting investment funding would be repurposing the upper part of the building for residential investment including apartments or condos. As many pointed out at the meeting, there are many moving parts involved in such a project, with financial realities and limitations a key component.
Still, there was considerable positivity and excitement in the room, especially after hearing the provocative ideas of Mena's top students and the practical experience of Chris Jones.
"There is much potential for this building," said James Earl Turner. "We've got to get the excitement and enthusiasm in people to say we can do it. That's this group's mission."