UHV, Texas A&M AgriLife launch rural leadership development initiative

Farhang Niroomand, left, dean of the UHV School of Business Administration, and Ronnie McDonald, executive director of the Texas Rural Leadership Program, sign a Memorandum of Understanding Thursday at the DeWitt County Courthouse to share community development resources in 10 Coastal Bend counties. Looking on are David Cockrum, left, UHV interim provost and vice president for academic affairs; Joe Humphreys, director of the UHV Regional Center for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship; and Douglas Steele, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

CUERO – A new leadership development program is coming to DeWitt County with the combined guidance of the University of Houston-Victoria and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

The Texas Rural Leadership Program is designed to help counties identify and make the most of their assets. While DeWitt County is the starting point, the program eventually could spread to nine additional counties in the Coastal Bend region.

UHV and Texas A&M AgriLife officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding Thursday at the DeWitt County Courthouse in Cuero to share community development resources. It’s the first such regional agreement in Texas.

While the universities will bring considerable amounts of expertise to the program, county residents will be the driving force behind the community development work, said Joe Humphreys, director of the UHV Small Business Development Center and Regional Center for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship.

“When we think about assets, we typically think about buildings and land, but what we should be thinking about is people,” Humphreys said. “This program talks about relationships and connections. We are talking about how communities can work together. It’s really grass roots. It’s all about how communities raise themselves.”

DeWitt County residents will choose and carry out a project with assistance from UHV and Texas A&M. Anthony Netardus, DeWitt County Extension agent, and his staff also will provide expertise.

“I don’t think any rural community in Texas is asking for entitlement,” said Douglas Steele, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “They are asking for empowerment. They are asking ‘How we can make a difference in our community today with the resources we have?’”

The MOU also marked the first formal project UHV’s new Regional Center for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship has undertaken.

The center provides a regional hub for small business resources and promotes community engagement and partnerships to support the educational, economic and cultural development in Aransas, Bee, Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Gonzales, Jackson, Karnes, Lavaca, Refugio and Victoria counties.

“We still see that ‘Friday Night Lights’ mentality of competition,” Humphreys said. “Texas Rural Leadership Program is a trusted source for a community to work with on breaking down walls, building new relationships, realigning resources to define their community development priorities and goals.”

The Texas Rural Leadership Program was formed in 1990 by a group of leaders representing business, civic, education, government and religious organizations across Texas who were partners with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Through leadership development, the program gives communities the information needed to organize local leadership programs, identify a goal for the community, and create and implement a plan to meet that goal.

The next step is a countywide meeting, which will be held this summer in Cuero. Residents from across DeWitt County are encouraged to attend.

“It’s amazing when rural communities stand up and look around,” Steele said. “They find out they have some treasures they have never pulled together. The biggest treasure is human capital, the capacity to want to give back.”

Ronnie McDonald, Texas Rural Leadership Program executive director, said the first objective is getting DeWitt County citizens to work together to set a vision.

“At this meeting, we will have that conversation,” McDonald said. “It’s a chance to start talking about what vision is and our resources and assets. From there, we want to identify a group of leaders that would like to advance this vision.”

Farhang Niroomand, dean of the UHV School of Business Administration, said the collective resources that residents can draw upon are vast. UHV can offer faculty expertise in many areas, along with SBDC advisors and Regional Center for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship resources. In turn, communities become aware of the resources UHV can offer.

“UHV encourages faculty members and students to be involved and make a difference,” Niroomand said. “It’s important for our business school to be engaged in the community. This is a great opportunity for us to be involved.”

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.

Jeremy Shapiro