Editor’s note: Profiles with Clay is intended to provide information about those in the Fort Smith region who find themselves — purposefully or via promotion — newly engaged in a business or civic leadership role. Furthermore, they have demonstrated the capacity and willingness to improve some aspect of their community, and have expressed a desire for regional leadership that is more active, aggressive and accommodating.
story and interview by Clay McKinney
Jessica Birchler was born in eastern Arkansas but her family moved back to the Ozark area during her third grade year. She considers herself an Ozark native and thoroughly enjoys the town.
In high school she participated in a variety of activities; band, cheerleading, choir, jazz, just to name a few. Following high school, Birchler attended the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith on an academic scholarship as well as a music scholarship where she graduated in May of 2009.
Birchler has her real estate license and sells real estate, as time permits, for Hillbilly Realty in Ozark. She recently took over the position of coordinator of Student Recruitment at Arkansas Tech University-Ozark campus where she has the chance to do what she truly enjoys; working with the students.
Birchler has a weak spot for animals. She rattled off a long list of animals she has either had or has taken care of or has nursed back to health (most of which were given a name starting with the letter ‘L’). I believe even a turkey was somewhere in the list. She says she is the unofficial depository for stray or unwanted animals. She now has two dogs (Lilly and Lexie, remember the ‘L’ theme?) and a cat which is plenty for most. When she is not immersed in the animal world, Jessica likes to dabble in photography.
Clay McKinney: Tell me about some of the activities, groups or organizations you are a part of that help shape the Fort Smith region?
“First off, I am part of a generation that is growing up in an area that is changing more quickly than we ever anticipated. Our generation is facing challenges that our parents and grandparents did not have. Our grandparents grew up less fortunate, most them, due to the economic circumstances of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Within them grew a hunger to succeed and plant those seeds into their children.
“This generation was born into a wonderful economy, the best that many living people ever remember. Now it has totally changed. The guaranteed steady income has become scarce, people are fording into unknown territories. It seems to me that even though we are going through this terrible economic time our area is also lucky. We have many great things going for us, and we did not get hit as hard as other places. Many of our jobs grew out of necessity; we still need teachers, police officers, nurses, and many other occupations that have not been destroyed by this Wall Street disaster. Our housing prices never doubled or tripled over night, so when the bubble burst our sales went down, but they did not completely die.
“The Main Street Program is something that I feel passionate about. This program is committed to downtown revitalization through volunteers and methods like economic restructuring, design, organization, and promotion. We have to create a warm and inviting atmosphere in our hub in order to get outsiders to want to stay here. The more businesses we have downtown the more revenues we have, the more visitors we have, the more growth, the rewards are exponential.
“The (Ozark) Chamber of Commerce is a group of local business people getting together and working towards making Ozark a better area to live and work. It is also totally volunteer based, and it has helped our area.
“I am currently the Secretary, Fundraising Chairman and Event Coordinator for the Ozark Board of Realtors, and even thought this is a strictly professional organization, it has given me access to the people that are moving to and from here and the reasons why they do so. It has been one of the professions that has been hit pretty hard recently and even when we don’t realize it, when are representing and working to bring people here. We utilize multiple resources to bring people to our region. We are like mini-experts on the River Valley and what it has to offer.
“Finally as a staff member of ATU-Ozark I have been given the opportunity to help shape our region but helping our residents become educated and find their paths in life. We have both new high school students and adults returning to school either to find something new, add to what they have already achieved, or start over entirely.”
CM: What would you say a young leader’s role should be in our region?
“A young leader’s role in our area should be understanding all the different qualities that make our region exactly what it is. We have large farms, manufacturing industry, wineries, and entrepreneurs, great transportation opportunities with the interstate system and the Arkansas River and all the railways as well.
“Tying these together can be rather difficult, but you have to understand that separate we are never as great as the sum of our parts. Without each section, we could not be as valuable. After one understands that the leader must step up and be the change they wish to see. I feel passionately about downtown growth, so I have volunteered my time and energy to that area. You cannot simply step back and wait for someone to do it for you. Many people would like to help but don’t know where to start. They don’t have a friend or acquaintance to ask them to volunteer or help, I feel like many organizations need to realize they are missing a large volunteer base by not asking the youth. All in all, a young leader needs to bridge the lifestyles of the people in our region as well as engage the youth to be more involved.”
CM: Some might say there is an underlying ‘old vs. young’ theme around here. Do you believe it exists and what are your thoughts on bridging this gap?
“I do feel like there is a gap. There are many issues working against the young being involved in politics. Sometimes confidence is a large hurdle that young people must face in order to compete with some of the older crowd. A 25-year-old has not had the same experiences that a 50-year-old has had, but that can be both good and bad. The younger person may bring a different perspective to the position. The voting base tends to be older and the figures can discourage others. It seems like young people have to fight an uphill battle because people assume that age is a disadvantage.
“Young people need to be involved at all levels. City council and mayor are not the only ways to have your voice be heard. Run for a position on the planning and zoning board. Become a member of the volunteer fire department. We have to lead by example.”
CM: A lot has been said over the past few years about the importance of keeping young professionals in our region and its pivotal role in the future success of our region. What are your thoughts on this?
“We do need to keep our professionals in our area, but we also have to be able to offer them a reason to stay. We need the opportunities, options and objectives that they will seek out. We have to look forward and see that we need an inviting environment to live and work. If we can keep people here, they will want this area to prosper because it is near and dear to them. We can’t expect someone who has nothing tied to here to want the same things as someone committed to improving the quality of life. We want people to grown up here, become educated here, and choose to raise their families or continue their lives here because it was rewarding for them and they want it to be that way for others.”
CM: How do you envision our community when the next generation is in your position?
I would hope that my community would be beyond this economic downturn and could look back at it and know how to avoid it. We would have more businesses in our downtown area and have more of a draw off of the interstate. People would come to Ozark on purpose rather than stumbling upon it. I want the institution to have more programs offered in the technical fields.”
CM: Some believe that the young leaders’ needs to lie in the political arena in order to bring about change. Do you believe this to be the case?
“Young leaders need to be everywhere. They need to be in education, politics, civic activities, and entrepreneurs. Honestly I believe that we are underrepresented here. If you look at the number of people of under 30, or under 40, we are under ratio.”
CM: Our region has a long history in manufacturing but many would like to see us move away from this. How do you feel about this and what do you feel are our obstacles?
“Manufacturing has been important, as well as retail sales and many other fields. I think the best thing for our region is to diversify. The more opportunities are available and the stronger our networks are the less likely we are to be struck like this. We essentially cannot put all of our eggs in one basket. We definitely can benefit from having technically advanced employees. ... We need all levels of skills and education.”
CM: Some say the young leadership groups within our community are simply social groups and that they really don’t have a productive function, what is your reaction to those who believe this?
“That may be for some groups, I haven’t been associated with one of those (laughs). I think that you have to work to get things done and sometimes it’s important to have an opportunity to relax after the work is done.”
CM: If you were “king for a day” what one thing would you change about our region, and why?
“I would like for people to take a step back and look to see what a jewel we have here (our region). People from here don’t see how great it is here. It’s a lot better than they realize and maybe they’ll say ‘I need to stop complaining.’ We have good education here. We have good health care here. We have a low cost of living and if you step back and look at it, it’s not so bad. I just wish people would see what’s right in front of them.”
Clay McKinney is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He’s lived in Fort Smith since 1999 with his wife and two daughters. His short story, “Duplicity,” placed third in the National Writer’s Association Short Story contest in 2007. He’s working on a book with an attorney friend about an arbitration case against the New York Yankees.
You can reach Clay at email@example.com