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A plan for southeast Arkansas

It hasn’t always been this way.

Southeast Arkansas hasn’t always been an economically depressed area in search of answers — a region turning to the state government, the federal government, anyone who might could offer some relief.

Last June, Gov. Mike Beebe kicked off a meeting of a coalition whose members seem determined to come up with a plan for this corner of the state.

Representatives were present at that meeting from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Arkansas State University, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Southern Bancorp, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and other organizations.

Here’s the idea: Do a better job of coordinating the incentive programs and other efforts of these various entities. Focus not only on a specific area of the state but also on designated private-sector business opportunities within that area. Try to make something actually happen rather than just producing another report to go on the shelf.

Here’s how the introduction of a draft strategy plan for the region reads: “Arkansas’ extreme southeastern corner — essentially the area from Arkansas Post south to the Louisiana line and bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and to the west by Bayou Bartholomew — is rich in history and heritage. Yet in many ways it’s among the most overlooked regions within the Natural State.

“That wasn’t always the case. In fact, prior to the Civil War, Chicot County was the richest county in Arkansas and among the wealthiest in the entire country. Its fertile Delta soils yielded tens of thousands of bales of cotton annually. Just to the north, Desha County was nearly as prosperous with its extensive production of cotton and other crops.

“The Civil War put an end to the slave-based agricultural system, and then Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the Lower Mississippi River Valley with the devastating flood of 1927, the worst flood in American history. Southeast Arkansas was particularly hard hit, and the region has never really gotten back on its feet.

“The mechanization of agriculture over the past century eliminated millions of farming jobs across the country and resulted in an out-migration of residents. Arkansas was certainly no exception to this societal transformation, which continues to this day in southeastern Arkansas. Although communities in the area have attracted small industries through the years, manufacturing employment remains relatively modest in this corner of the state. Given the rise of the global economy and current trend of outsourcing jobs, prospects for additional industrial growth will be a challenge.

“For decades now, a long list of local, regional, state and national leaders and their consultants have searched for answers to the region’s economic woes. Every year or two another study is released, citing the usual litany of problems: chronic unemployment, lagging growth and anemic tax collections. The typical recommendations range from education enhancements to transportation projects to industrial parks. Unfortunately, little actual progress has been made by the various efforts to stimulate significant economic development in Arkansas’ southeastern corner.”

One thing I’ve learned in community development is that any city, county or region must begin by identifying and then building on existing assets.

What are the existing assets in southeast Arkansas?

Consider these:

— The region is bordered by the Mississippi River.

— The Audubon Society has identified two “important bird areas” in the region.

— Arkansas Post, the first European settlement in the Mississippi River Valley, is managed by the National Park Service as a national memorial. The Parks and Tourism Department operates the nearby Arkansas Post Museum.

— Lake Chicot is the largest natural oxbow lake in North America. Lake Chicot State Park has undergone numerous improvements during the past decade.

— Arkansas State University has restored the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Chicot. It’s the only remaining antebellum plantation home along the river in southeast Arkansas.

— A spectacular bridge recently opened across the Mississippi River between Lake Village and Greenville.

— The Parks and Tourism Department combined forces with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to open a 3,000-square-foot welcome center overlooking Lake Chicot.

— The Game and Fish Commission has expanded its holdings in the area, including Choctaw Island, a prime wildlife habitat inside the Mississippi River levee.

— Desha County restored the historic courthouse at Arkansas City.

— Arkansas City also contains a replica of the boyhood home of John Johnson, the Ebony magazine founder.

— The Parks and Tourism Department is creating the Delta Heritage Trail, which will extend along a former railroad line for 75 miles from near Helena to near McGehee. This rails-to-trails conversion has the potential to attract hikers and bicyclists from across the country.

— There already are several fine restaurants and retail shops in the Lake Village area.

— The World War II-era Japanese-American relocation centers at Jerome and Rohwer have the potential to attract heritage tourists if there are proper interpretive exhibits and marketing efforts.

— The Great River Road, which is designated as a National Scenic Byway, passes through the area.

— Some of the finest hunting and fishing in the state can be found in southeast Arkansas.

It doesn’t hurt that the House speaker, Robert Moore Jr. of Arkansas City, has a deep love for the region and is pushing hard for this coordinated effort.

Seven potential projects have been identified as opportunities for helping spark a revival of the region. They are:

1. Redevelopment of the surviving buildings in the commercial historic district of Arkansas City. Possibilities for this old river port city include an antique shop, bed and breakfast inn, restaurant, music venue and outdoors outfitter.

2. Establishment of a marina along the lower Arkansas River so boaters can purchase fuel, bait, licenses and other supplies. A first-class marina could, in turn, lead to fishing resorts, overnight cabins and guide services.

3. Redevelopment of the Lake Village commercial district. More than a dozen structures in Lake Village are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the city’s downtown is a National Historic District. A bed and breakfast inn, restaurants and shops could draw visitors off U.S. Highways 65 and 82 and into the city. A driving tour could be established that would stretch from the Lakeport Plantation to Lake Chicot State Park, taking in Lakeshore Drive and the commercial district.

4. Further development of the Game and Fish Commission’s Choctaw Island West area for ATV tours, watchable wildlife programs and other services. Perhaps the commission could partner with an entrepreneur who would develop an overnight facility along the lines of the Shack-Up Inn at Clarksdale, Miss., or the Tallahatchie Flats near Greenwood, Miss.

5. Development of a lodge at Lake Chicot State Park. According to a publication from the southeast Arkansas coalition: “While the state parks system can’t afford to build and operate the lodge out of existing revenue sources at this time, the state as a whole may consider it worth the investment. A similar situation arose in 1973 when Stone County was the second poorest county in the United States. Federal investment in the Ozark Folk Center and Blanchard Springs Caverns has transformed the county, with 75.4 percent population growth since 1970 and the addition of 103 tourism-related businesses in Mountain View.”

6. Bringing a steamboat to Arkansas City to serve as a floating hotel. The hotel would be aggressively marketed to tourists in surrounding states.

7. Paving the top of the Mississippi River levee from Arkansas City south to the Louisiana border to serve as a unique attraction for visitors.

It’s important to understand that government can’t do all of this. The coalition will have to put together a package of tax incentives that’s strong enough to convince entrepreneurs they can make money from the projects.

At least, though, somebody is doing something rather than just wringing their hands and talking about the good ol’ days.

One of the things I constantly preached during my years with the Delta Regional Authority was that we had to get out of the old economic development mode that “bigger is better.”

As far as population counts are concerned, southeast Arkansas isn’t going to suddenly get bigger.

But there’s no reason it can’t become better, eventually stemming the population losses that now reach back almost 60 years.

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