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Elected leaders and concerned citizens from across St. Francis County filled the Chancery Courtroom at the St. Francis County Courthouse Tuesday night for the second public meeting with officials from Southern Bancorp. The group received early reports on economic development efforts as well as a countywide clean-up effort.

The meeting opened with County Judge Gary Hughes giving a brief overview of progress that has been made since officials first met with Southern Bancorp last month. Tiffany Billingsley, who is working with Hughes, Forrest City Mayor Gordon McCoy and Buddy Billingsley, as part of the economic development steering committee, followed Hughes and said the group is focusing its efforts on targeting industries to bring to the area.

“We have been working for some time on this and have known that we needed a comprehensive master plan for recruiting industry to this area. Working with officials from Southern Bancorp, we’re creating a blueprint for what our industry needs are for St. Francis County as far as what we want along with the things that we need to do on a local level to attract those industries,” said Billingsley.

Billingsley told the group that a Request For Proposals has been drafted and will be sent to several different companies that work in the area of industrial recruitment. “We don’t want just a piece of paper giving us a list of potential industries, we want something that will actually give us targeted information that we can pursue,” she said.

Billingsley said that once the RFPs are returned, the steering committee will then prepare a grant request which will be submitted to Southern Bancorp and then to the Walton Foundation for approval.

Billingsley also fielded questions from the audience on whether the effort is to bring industry only to Forrest City and whether the county would work with efforts in neighboring counties like Cross and Lee to attract industry.

In answer to the question regarding whether the efforts would focus only on Forrest City, Billingsley said, “The assets of all of the communities will be looked at and our hope is to figure out how best to leverage those assets to the benefits of all of the communities. We’re doing this as a county because we realize that it is important that this effort be for all of our communities, but we also have to realize that if we’re able to bring an industry into Forrest City, it benefits Hughes and Madison and all of the communities in St. Francis County.”

As for working with neighboring counties, she said the county plan is being crafted to fit into plans the state currently has along with plans of the Crossroads Coalition, which is made up of St. Francis along with Crittenden, Cross, Jackson, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett and Woodruff counties.

The group also heard from Dr. Robert Cole with the East Arkansas Enterprise Community. The EAEC is heading up the countywide clean-up initiative. Cole told the group the EAEC is currently working to update infrastructure needs reports that were taken in 2003 and stressed that part of the clean-up effort would involve infrastructure needs.

“Infrastructure and clean-up are tied hand-in-hand a lot of times because one of the things that you’ll find when you start demolishing buildings and moving out old cars and such is that there are some issues that fall under infrastructure. It’s important that we get this information back from you mayors so that we can incorporate this information. Our plan is to have the engineer back in next week to take a look at this and update our cost analysis,” said Cole.

Joe Black with Southern Bancorp said that one area they found when working in Phillips County that fell under the county clean-up initiative was updating municipal codes and making sure that each town has a code enforcement officer.

Black said he was impressed by the efforts shown by those attending the first two meetings and the progress that has been made.

“We came in and asked you all to prioritize what you wanted us to work with you on, and you have since reached out and done a good job. We want to use the quarterly meetings, and they will be quarterly to let you all know exactly what’s going on and what progress has been made,” said Black. “I’m impressed with the showing that we have tonight. I intentionally didn’t call people to remind them about tonight’s meeting because I wanted to see how many people would show up, and it looks like everyone is here. That shows the interest you all have in working to see this program be successful,” said Black.

Black told the group that work has begun on the municipal accounting software initiative which will streamline the accounting process for the cities and called on Dr. Jerry Woods to work with the superintendents from the Palestine-Wheatley and Hughes school districts along with Dr. Coy Grace on an education initiative.

“You all already have the ongoing LEAD program here in St. Francis County, and I really think it would be beneficial for the education stakeholders to get together and evaluate where the LEAD program is going and share and evaluate their best practices. Education is a tough nut to crack because we have a lot of things that have to be addressed. If nothing else, we want to help you move your education projects forward,” said Black.

Black also stressed the importance of local leadership, specifically due to the fact that there is no local Southern Bancorp office. “We must have local leaders involved, and we have that so far. Unlike our program down in Helena, we won’t have an office here, so someone locally will have to take the lead on issues. It appears we have the people who are looking to do that job,” he said.

Southern Bancorp is taking over for the Foundation for the Mid-South in continuing a partnership in St. Francis County that is being supported through the Walton Family Foundation. The next quarterly meeting is set for Tuesday, May 26, at 5 p.m. at the St. Francis County Courthouse.