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HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. – Even among the dilapidated houses and ghostly storefronts in Helena-West Helena, it’s easy to believe the young Michael Boone when he says his beaten-down hometown will shake off its blues.

“I had a good life here when I was coming up,” says Boone, who went off to play football and basketball at the University of Mississippi and earned a degree in banking and finance. “This is where I want to raise my children.”

For decades, the region has been losing population and Boone, a developer, is one of the few young people to return. The city’s treasurer, he believes the merger of two rival cities on Jan. 1, 2006, inched the community forward on a journey that could take miles.

The Mississippi Delta is considered by many to be the nation’s poorest region, trailing even parts of Appalachia in its standard of living. Phillips County lost a third of its population from 1970 to 2000 and, of the 24,107 people who remain, more than a quarter live in poverty.

Government agencies, including the public schools and the community college, are the county’s largest employers. Boone’s father is a vice chancellor at the Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas and his mother teaches English.

A much-needed boost to private development is in the works to pump life back into the 173-year-old community. Along several downtown blocks in what formerly was just Helena, only 30 percent to 40 percent of the retail space is occupied.

“You’ll probably have a hard time believing this, but it’s really on its way back,” says Ben Steinberg, the president of Southern Financial Partners, where Boone, 28, also works.

At the center of redevelopment is the “Delta Bridge Project,” a series of proposals developed with residents; $2.3 million in seed money from the Walton Family Foundation set up by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune; and more than $21 million in matching funds from Southern Bancorporation, a development bank-holding company.

Southern Financial is coordinating the Delta Bridge Project for Southern Bancorporation. The goal isn’t to just transform two cities into one, but to eliminate past distrust between the communities and pursue a common goal for its 13,563 residents.

“You can feel the difference in the atmosphere, and it’s still early in the game,” says Doug Hollowell, president of Hoffinger Industries Inc., whose 180 workers make portable swimming pools.

The Delta Bridge Project also calls for a transportation system to reach areas where few residents own cars, plus a biodiesel plant and a sweet potato storage and distribution center.

Before Helena-West Helena came into being last year, the local governments were wracked by in-fighting among black and white elected officials. West Helena city council members boycotted meetings, and county legislators went to jail for refusing a judge’s order to set an election date. Separately, mismanagement and dwindling finances at the public schools prompted a state takeover.

“Let’s hope it has hit rock bottom,” said John Crow, who runs the Edwardian Inn and whose family has lived in Phillips County since 1824. The hotel, based in a mansion, is booked far in advance for the region’s annual blues festival, with regular guests from England and Belgium.

After the merger, city officials largely managed to keep politics separate from public service, Mayor James Valley said. And although Valley and former Helena mayor JoAnn Smith recently engaged in nasty politicking in Valley’s re-election bid, Valley says he has put the harsh words behind him. He won by a large margin and forgives Smith supporters who are still on the city board.

“I won’t be trying to retaliate,” Valley says. “We’ll get past that.”

Financial problems, however, persisted as Helena-West Helena began 2006 with an inherited debt of about $1.5 million. The old city of Helena hadn’t paid its light, gas or water bills and owed the Internal Revenue Service up to $60,000 in penalties and interest. About $500,000 in legal fees had accumulated from past disputes among city officials in West Helena.

“People were calling us just about on a daily basis and saying we owe them, we owe them,” Boone said.

And, administratively, the cities had to merge their police, fire and street departments. Different computer systems in the two old cities didn’t talk to each other and a maze of bank accounts allowed more than one series of checks to be written against the same account.

“We’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars in several different accounts,” the mayor said. “We merged, though, without any real acrimony.”

And in its first year Helena-West Helena reduced its debt to about $600,000, reopened a fire station that had been closed for years and bought a new fire truck. The new city settled a landfill lawsuit and reopened the facility, eliminating trips to landfills in Hazen and Tunica, Miss.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln grew up around old Helena and says common sense suggests the merger will prove beneficial to the community.

“Consolidation offers the combining of resources and expertise and the opportunity for the area to receive more competitive grants and federal dollars for economic development,” said Lincoln, D-Ark. “I applaud the citizens of Helena-West Helena for their courage and vision in merging the two cities.”

Already the city looks better.

Abandoned and condemned properties were razed last year. Junked cars were removed. Construction crews began work on affordable housing, and there’s a Habitat for Humanity office here. A new wellness center affiliated with the University of Arkansas’ medical school opened and offers yoga, nutrition counseling, smoking cessation classes and health screenings. Residents who previously did not cross paths formed friendships.

A new Boys and Girls Club, teeming with children playing ping pong, pool and video games – or getting homework help – gave young people a wholesome place to spend their time. A Knowledge is Power Program charter school, where students wear T-shirts emblazoned with “There are no shortcuts” and spend long hours in instruction from award-winning veteran teachers and young graduates from Notre Dame and Duke, added a ninth grade.

And cars are parked in front of downtown stores – Steinberg said that, a year ago, there were none.

At the wellness center, Sharon Thomas is seated in front of a computer in the medical library. Dressed in bright red, she is on a job hunt. Thomas, 38, moved back to her hometown in November and believes her chances of finding work are good. She has a dental assistant certificate.

Thomas says a couple of others her age have moved back home, too. Her parents live in the city and her brother is a police officer.

She says she plans to stay.

Eventually, city offices will move into a single building, and restorers will spruce up the 1905 Centennial Baptist Church, designed by black architect Henry James Price.

For 2007, the mayor hopes the city can streamline its accounting system and raise the city sales tax, which voters rejected last spring. He is hopeful that fire department improvements will bring lower insurance rates for property owners.

Valley says the challenge for everyone will be to stay focused.

“The business community, which essentially is the white community, controls the money. And the majority, which essentially is the black community, controls the ballot,” he says. “I need both of them to work together.”

On the Net:
Delta Bridge Project
Southern Bancorporation
Walton Family Foundation
Edwardian Inn
Delta Cultural Center