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Hope for Helena? The spud that saved the Delta
Live in these latitudes long enough, and you’ll get used to seeing headlines like this one: Phillips County’s last gasp?/ Many pray revival plan, funds are Delta county’s Moses.
You get so used to seeing headlines and stories that promise Hope for the Delta that you’re tempted to pass on by. Go to Sports. Or, better yet, the Funnies. Something that’ll lift the spirits. Because you just know that reading about the latest plan/strategy/commission/task force/pipe dream that’s going to revitalize what may be the country’s poorest, most-neglected region is just going to depress you. And also because you know that Hope in the Delta is like Peace in the Middle East-the promise of a bright tomorrow that never seems to come. And you don’t want to get those Delta Blues. Not again.
But this time, like last time, you go ahead and read about The Plan anyway. You read about it because, like the Delta, you just can’t give up. You can’t rid yourself of that human impulse to believe, to have faith, to give in to hope when experience tells you . . . oh, please, not another plan to Revitalize the Delta. Not another dust-collector of a report that’ll make the politicians feel better, get the academics some more grants, and then sit on the shelf as evidence that, hey, we tried.
So you read. And a funny thing happens on the way to the usual head-shaking cynicism. You’re intrigued. You’re encouraged. You’re-dare we say it-excited for Helena and the Delta.
Why, this isn’t just any plan. It’s a . . . a . . . a good plan.
For one big thing, this plan has money behind it. Walton money. (Yep. Some $8 million to $10 million from the Walton Foundation for various projects.) Southern Bancorp, a community development bank which owns West Helena-based First Bank of the Delta, is also helping to fund this revitalization. Paul Baldwin, CEO of Southern Bancorp, put it this way: “Eastern Arkansas, south of Interstate 40, does not have an anchor. We’re proposing to make Helena that anchor.”
For another big thing, the plan embraces what the Delta has lots of-namely, history, culture, The Wah, blues, and The River. The very Father of Waters. The one Mark Twain wrote about. The plan divides economic development into Jobs and Tourism. (With hope that soon enough they’ll be one and the same.) The plan addresses health care, housing and, most important of all, education, even sort-of acknowledging that maybe it’d be best for the state to take over the Historically Troubled School District in Helena-West Helena. (The obvious is sometimes the last thing to surface in these reports.) And the most hopeful thing about The Plan is that it was put together by hundreds of folks-black and white, and real people, not just pols. All with a personal investment in the region. It calls to mind Future-Little Rock, the outfit of concerned citizens that once put together a detailed plan for the capital city and Got. Things. Done.
Listen to Alan Levine, who’s lived some six decades in Helena. He’s seen his share of Grand Plans come and go, never to return. To quote Mr. Levine: “I’ve been involved in a lot of things, in different programs, that get off with a bang but then die by the wayside. I don’t ever remember a project in this area with as many as 300 people on a team. It’s very encouraging.”
Also practical. To start with, the plan focuses on Helena, not the whole parched region. Not all at once. The idea is to make Helena the beating heart of the region. Which it already is. We just need to get it off life support.
Again, the key is to embrace what Helena’s already got. Like the River, a funky and historic downtown, ante-bellum everything, and music. Oh, and sweet potatoes.
The spud may just save the day. Does anybody remember what Phillips County used to be known for? Even before the King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Wild Hog Rally?
Sweet potatoes. And don’t you dare call ‘em yams, which are a different botanical category altogether. Whatever, they thrived in the Delta soil. And how. So wha’ happened? Farmers didn’t have an efficient way to distribute the spuds. So they pretty much quit growing the crop, and the whole Delta suffered because of it.
Now, part of the Save-the-Delta plan centers on building a sweet-potato distribution center. The better to get those ‘taters to market. Already, word is that Gerber may be interested in buying because Delta-grown sweet potatoes make an ideal baby food. Wouldn’t that be something-if Phillips County became famous for feeding Gerber babies?
To quote Steven Murray, chancellor of Phillips Community College: “I think we probably have the only strategic plan in the nation that envisions the sweet potato as an agent of social change.”
Hey, why not? Look at what Starbucks did for Seattle with the once simple coffee bean. And what Coca-Cola did for Atlanta. And chicken for Northwest Arkansas. And all that Wal-Mart brought, along with low, low prices.
Besides, it’s not really about the sweet potato. It’s about those 300 folks who worked together on the redevelopment plan. They worked together and-get this-nobody got in a huff and walked out.
What we have here is a failure to miscommunicate. And it’s about time. Imagine: A plan to save the Delta that features (1) cooperation, (2) non-government money, and (3) vision.
Boy, maybe things are looking up down in the Delta.
A COUPLE we know spent a long weekend in Helena a few years back. They stayed at a bed-and-breakfast just outside town. They watched the mighty river flow. They poked around a few of the shops that still did business. They crossed the bridge to a restaurant for a catfish dinner that, to this day, makes their mouths water. They had homemade biscuits and honey for breakfast, swapped lies with the B-and-B owners and, before they left, toured an old Confederate cemetery. It was a perfect weekend.
After they returned to Little Rock, all the couple talked about for a week was when they could get back to Helena. He was in a mood to read some Mark Twain, specifically Life on the Mississippi. She was in a mood to read some Civil War history, or a Southern Gothic something. Southerners though they were, they’d never felt such a Sense of Place.
Years went by and they never did get back. They don’t really know why. But their enthusiasm waned. Plans never got made for that return trip. Maybe it’s because, every time they’d read about Phillips County in the paper, folks there were always bickering. The news always seemed sad, the outlook discouraging. After a while, Helena fell off their screen.
We thought of that couple Sunday when we read the latest pie-in-the-sky headline. And we thought of that couple after we’d finished the story. We bet they’re making plans now for another visit. And soon. The better to beat the crowds that’ll surely flock post-sweet potato, once hundreds of concerned citizens, plus some Walton millions and, we dearly hope, little-to-no guvmint meddlin’, bring hope back to Helena.