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The Delta dilemma

A reporter from The Associated Press called this morning. She wanted to ask me some questions for a story she’s doing on Helena-West Helena (gosh, I wish they would get rid of that clunky, hyphenated name and just call the place Helena) and its economic woes.

I told her that I had no silver bullets to serve up. I said that if I claimed there are simple solutions to the problems facing the Arkansas Delta, I would be either overly myopic or a candidate for political office. I’m neither.

There are, to put it bluntly, no easy answers for changing the economic and demographic trends that have been developing for 50 years or more in a part of the state that once was based on a sharecropping and tenant-farming system of labor.

It’s neither an easy nor a popular thing to tell someone who desperately needs a job to be patient. But the long-term salvation for the parts of east Arkansas that are suffering most is not in the quick fix. It’s in improving the public schools. It’s in improving public health. It’s in creating a quality of life that’s good enough that a college graduate might choose to come back home after graduation and start a business. Initially, that business might employ only one or two people. Eventually, it could employ 20 or 30 people. As I’ve written before, that’s the approach that will pay more dividends in the long than the race to land some Acme Widget Co. that suddenly will bring 700 jobs to town. More often than not, Acme Widget is a pipe dream.

This form of community development is much like being a tree farmer. You plant the seedlings, but it’s years before you see a return on your investment.

Recently, I attended the meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus at the Clinton Center in Little Rock. As I wrote in a column that ran in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the highlight of the meeting for me was not anything said by the long line of politicians who came before the group during a two-day period. It was instead the words of a student at the Clinton School of Public Service named William Jeter. He’s a fourth-generation Arkansan who grew up in Pine Bluff and has spent countless hours working on his family farm at Wabbaseka in Jefferson County.

As part of a required project at the Clinton School, Jeter worked with the folks in Newport to establish a facility known as the Blue Bridge Center for the Delta Arts. I wrote about how Jeter hopes to be part of a wider effort to recruit and retain young leaders who will get involved in the Delta.

The future of east Arkansas depends on attracting the William Jeters back home — at least part of them. Success will no longer be defined by landing the big industrial plants. Success might instead come from focusing on sectors such as nature tourism (hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking and more) and new crops for part-time farmers.

It was Rep. Mike Ross from the 4th District of south Arkansas who pointed out to the group that it’s the small businesses that are the backbone of local economies in rural Arkansas.

“Most economic successes happen not because of those of us in Congress, they happen because of a can-do attitude in local communities,” he said. “The real job creators in this country are the small businesses. There’s only so much government can do.”

To that, I say “amen.”

Too often during my four years as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I attended meetings where people simply had their hands out for government grants. They had no concrete action steps for doing the heavy lifting at the community level. There was no local investment of dollars and no buy in on the part of area residents. They simply wanted someone else — state government, the federal government, a big charitable foundation — to ride in and save the day.

That’s rarely going to happen.

Lee Powell, the former Arkansan who directs the Delta Grassroots Caucus from Washington, noted in an e-mail to me that it’s important for his organization to keep the pressure on officeholders not to forget the region. But he realizes there must be more than a government approach. He talked about the efforts of thousands of individuals in the eight states where his organization has contacts. Often, these are little things. But little things add up.

“It does not get the kind of major media attention that the politicians get, but those thousands of little accomplishments over the course of the year are just as essential as the big-picture stuff with Congress, the Obama administration and statewide leaders,” Powell said.

In the end, it will be the ability to attract private investment more than the ability to attract government grants that will determine which Delta towns survive and which towns continue to shrivel.

The surest way to avoid poverty, after all, is to have a long-term, private-sector job. If it’s a job with a company such as Nucor Steel in Mississippi County — which gives its employees $3,000 a year to improve their own educational attainment levels and $3,000 a year for the college-age children of employees — that’s all the better.

There are pockets of success. There are positive stories such as the education provided by the KIPP schools in Helena-West Helena or the jobs being provided by Nucor in Mississippi County.

Gov. Mike Beebe — raised in Amagon, a high school student at Newport, a college student at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro — understands east Arkansas as well as anyone. He understands that the key is somehow retaining people with talent, energy and a commitment to the region.

He talked about the first KIPP graduating class at Helena-West Helana and said: “The trick for us is to get them to come back after college. We need to be able to say, ‘We’ve invested in you. Now, please come back and invest in us.'”

Beebe understands that it eventually boils down to the continuous improvement of public education, not just in east Arkansas but in all parts of the state.

“If you get education right as your No. 1 priority, then everything else will follow,” he said. “The Delta is uniquely situated for a lot of wonderful things. But it takes leadership. It takes people working together. It takes people who are not afraid of innovative ideas.”

The governor didn’t put it in these words, but I will: It takes people who are doing more than simply seeking the next government grant. It takes people willing to get off their butts and do the not-always-pleasant, often-difficult, day-in-and-day-out things necessary to improve a community. Once those people have given up and moved elsewhere, it’s only a matter of time until that community enters the death spiral. Unfortunately for those left behind, no politician or government agency can change that trajectory.

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