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While politicians talked Friday about needing an integrated approach to address health care, education and economic development in the Arkansas Delta, Southern Bancorp announced $670,000 in grant funding to help projects that would address some of those needs in one Delta community – Phillips County.

The announcement and discussion came during the annual conference Friday of the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus at the Clinton library in downtown Little Rock. The caucus is an organization dedicated to raising public awareness about the Delta and lobbying for funding for 240 counties in the eight-state Delta region.

Much of Friday’s session was devoted to general discussions about the Delta and its needs from gubernatorial candidates Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson; U.S. Reps. Mike Ross and Marion Berry, both D-Ark.; and former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark.

The announcements by Southern Bancorp, a ruraldevelopment bank based in Arkadelphia, relate to specific projects already in the works in Phillips County. The grants, which are a piece of the Phillips County Strategic Community Plan, developed last year by residents and Southern Bancorp, are: $250,000 for the Knowledge is Power Program Delta College Preparatory School, known as the KIPP school, in Helena-West Helena to plan for a high school.

$40,000 for the KIPP school to start a development program to attract new financial resources.

$350,000 to clean up Biscoe Street, a blighted corridor in downtown Helena-West Helena.

$30,000 to pay for a site-specific feasibility study for a biodiesel plant in Phillips County.

“What we have attempted with our project is to open up a communitywide discussion, establish a vision and then we can provide some of the resources to the community,” said Ben Steinberg, president of Southern Financial Partners in Helena, an affiliate of
Southern Bancorp.

Referring to the strategic plan and the grant funds, Steinberg said, “We want to create a community that is conducive to our investment … and inspire the confidence of the local community.” Funding for the KIPP school will help pay for preliminary architectural plans, curriculum development and the purchase of options on property for a new high school campus, according to a news release. The school now serves about 250 students in grades five through eight, but plans to expand to high school in 2007, the release states.

Work has begun on the Biscoe Street cleanup, including the razing of several abandoned and deteriorated buildings, Steinberg said. Plans call for the corridor, which is near the Mississippi River Bridge, to become a green space or community park, he said.

The feasibility study, which will explore the viability of an integrated soybean-processing and biodiesel-manufacturing plant capable of producing at least 10 million gallons of fuel per year in Phillips County, also is under way, Steinberg said.

Lee Powell, caucus director, lauded the projects as examples of the types of changes that can occur in the Delta but also noted that it could use more support from state and local governments.

Beebe, the state attorney general and a Democrat running for governor, and Hutchinson, a former congressman and the only Republican running for governor, both agreed during a morning question-and-answer session that government should support the Delta, offering such aid as better access to preschool, funding for community-health programs and sales-tax exemptions for manufacturers on their utility bills. A spokesman for Bill Halter, the other Democrat in the governor’s race, was scheduled to speak at an afternoon session. Halter was not present, as he is to be married today in California.

Both Beebe and Hutchinson agreed that the Delta Regional Authority, an umbrella organization that funnels federal funds to counties in the lower Mississippi Delta, can help keep the Delta’s needs on the minds of state and federal leaders.

“The Delta Regional Authority has had stops and starts,” Beebe said. “What we have to maintain is the consistency – that it is not a flash in the pan one year, and appropriate attention is given and appropriate funding is given one year and then forgotten the next year, only to be revived two or three years later.” He suggested that conferences, such as the one held Friday, should be convened regularly to keep a dialogue going with politicians.

Hutchinson suggested that the best means of garnering support for the organization and the region is to promote what has been accomplished and regularly review the progress made with funding that is provided.

“I think performance measures are a key part of the equation for getting additional support in the future,” he said.

In afternoon sessions, Ross, Berry and Clark said they supported the efforts of the grassroots Delta caucus and believe progress can be made through continued promotion of the needs of the Delta region to governmental leaders.

But the key to progress, Clark said, is starting from the bottom up with local leaders and local ideas.

“We’ve got to support it [progress], we’ve got to resource it, we’ve got to guide it, but it’s got to start at the local level with great ideas,” he said. “This is about creating our own opportunities here.”