Written By: Jessica Welsch
On May 30, nearly 100 people gathered at the Selmer Farmers Market to brainstorm ideas for the future of McNairy County. The event was organized by TN Driving Innovation, a program of theCO that uses mobile labs to take workshops and tech education to 55 counties throughout the state of Tennessee.
The event, called “Big Table, Big Ideas,” marked the launch of Driving Innovation’s third mobile lab, theAmp, which is designed to help rural communities amplify their local resources and strengthen connections between people and the places they share.
The launch was attended by several government representatives, including McNairy County Mayor Larry Smith and Town of Selmer Mayor John Smith, as well as Brandon Gibson, Senior Advisor to Governor Bill Lee, and Senator Dolores Gresham. Three representatives from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, which funds the TN Driving Innovation program, were also present.
After a prayer from Mayor Larry Smith, the night began with a meal of catfish, cornbread, and fried chicken, catered from Top O’ the River in Michie, TN. Attendees from a wide range of professions and ages sat at a 96 foot long table adorned with colorful triangles and light bulb lanterns. William Donnell, a CO:founder, led participants in several brainstorming sessions, in which people wrote down their ideas for the community on sticky notes.
They first tackled the question: “What are some unique things you have seen in a community you have visited?” The majority of responses involved community events and entertainment with the number one response being a Family Fun Center. Other popular ideas included a folk or art festival, a dog park, or an athletic complex. After a quick break to rest the brain, the program moved on to the second question: “What kind of businesses do you want to see in McNairy County?” Most of these answers involved food, with the top three responses being a coffee shop, movie theater, or restaurants. Other attendees suggested an ice cream shop, bakery, or food trucks.
Question three prompted imagination, asking, “If you had 10,000 dollars to complete one project in your community, what would it be?” The responses found a recurring desire for beautification within McNairy communities, with nearly 55% of answers involving Parks and Recreation. Browyn Peeler, a local resident, shared some of her ideas, which included, “Paint, clean, fix businesses along downtown streets... Make the community look ready for new business.” Participants also suggested ideas such as programs to bring high school grads back to the county or a juvenile offender mentoring program.
The sun began to set in the sky, projecting breathtaking hues on the clouds as attendees answered their final, introspective question: “What talent could YOU bring to the table to help with the project mentioned in question three?” Most offered some form of skill, from video production work to project planning, fundraising, and construction. Clara Bodiford, Youth Leadership Class of 2019 Rising Star, answered, “Being young, I can get across to my friends and classmates ways to improve and help make McNairy County fun and better.”
Questions complete, the brainstorming session drew to a close and attendees took their best ideas to post on the side of the buses, placing sticker “votes” on ideas that they particularly liked.
As dusk fell, attendees were able to explore the labs, checking out the 3D printers and VR headsets on theLab, the conference room on theVenture, and the brand new smart board and video editing station on theAmp. All the while, local musicians Liza Smith and Colton Schaible performed lively music against a backdrop of Selmer’s vibrant murals.
“We loved launching theAmp at Big Table, Big Ideas in McNairy County.” said Ben Harris, Program Director of Tennessee Driving Innovation. “The best part of the event was hearing ideas for the community directly from people who live there.”
Though theAmp was the star of the show, Driving Innovation’s other two mobile labs, theLab and theVenture, were also present for tours. theLab focuses on youth education, specifically in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, while theVenture supports current and aspiring business owners across the state with entrepreneurial workshops, mentoring, and small business resources.
The three mobile labs have a packed schedule this summer. theLab is already traveling to 4H camps all over the state, teaching local kids and teens about STEAM. theAmp is receiving finishing touches and preparing to begin its own travels. And this summer, theVenture is visiting Chambers of Commerce on the BizGrowth Roadshow, bringing workshops on marketing for growth and other business strategy to ten counties in West Tennessee.