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New vision for the Delta Phillips County seeks to be area's model
In five short years, Phillips County “will be a model community for the Delta” – one of the most depressed regions in the nation.
That ambitious goal is the result of 10 months of planning by more than 300 residents and was announced Monday to a gathering that packed the Malco Theater.
The project could lead to something much bigger: resurrecting the entire Arkansas Delta.
The effort is being led by Southern Bancorp of Arkadelphia – and possibly a dozen or so large, national foundations – and leaders in Phillips County.
Initially, the focus is on Phillips County. But if success is achieved there, the concept would be applied in other Delta communities.
By 2010, the group’s vision statement says, Phillips County “will be a model community for the Delta, one that is economically strong, spiritually enriched and demonstrates equality among its people by building on the unity of its citizens, strength of its leadership, its rich history and natural beauty.”
“Phillips County will be a safe community with quality job opportunities for all citizens, excellent housing for all income levels, proactive healthcare and social services, excellent education for its children and workforce and premier recreational and tourism attractions that promote cultural enrichment for all,” the 40-page strategic plan states.
Southern Bancorp, a community development bank that owns First Bank of the Delta in Helena, and the Walton Family Foundation have helped finance some of the changes that already have begun in Phillips County.
“What I saw today is excitement and anticipation and a belief that things can be better,” said Phil Baldwin, chief executive officer of Southern Bancorp.
“Those three things added together will be what is needed to implement these changes. I believe people see a chance for something to happen.”
The development process will not end in 2010. Baldwin likened the goal-setting process to the Tour de France cycling race, which is conducted in stages.
“We’ll be farther along in 2010 than we are now,” Baldwin said. “But getting everything done will take longer than that.”
Southern will help match priorities in the plan with funding resources, including grants, money from government foundations and private contributions, Baldwin said.
“There are many agencies and organizations that have committed to helping us find the resources we need to bring this plan to life,” Baldwin said.
Helena natives Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas system, were among the speakers at Monday’s ceremony.
The strategic community plan acknowledges that the county’s vision is the opposite of its past. The county’s population dropped from 40,000 in 1970 to 26,000 in 2000, in part because of the decline of agriculture and manufacturing as significant employers. A third of its residents are on welfare.
It notes the county’s high unemployment, poorly performing schools, negative perceptions and lack of community pride. Also, the document says, “racial and political tensions have historically created an environment that is not conducive to new business development.”
The plan is divided into five categories: Economic development, including tourism and business and job creation. Phillips County plans to “develop itself as a meaningful secondary tourist destination” by taking advantage of its proximity to Tunica, Miss., and Memphis, the plan says. More than 12 million tourists visit Tunica’s casinos annually, said Steven Murray, chancellor of Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas. “If we can persuade 5 percent to come to Phillips County and spend $10-$20 each, that would make a tremendous impact.” The county also will focus on agriculture and the Port of Helena.
Housing development and redevelopment. Thirty-five dilapidated houses have been torn down and a market study has been completed to assess the need for additional housing in the county. The $1.3 million, 20-unit Southern Place Apartments will be completed next year to house some families displaced by the destruction of substandard housing.
Education. Among other things, the county’s leaders want to expand the private Knowledge Is Power Program college preparatory school from kindergarten to the 12th grade.
Leadership development. The county will begin leadership training in the 18- to 40-year-old range. Health care. Construction already has begun on a 25,000-square-foot Arkansas Health Education Center.
The plan is endorsed by more than 70 organizations and businesses in the county.
Murray said the goals and action steps laid out in the community plan “are not vague hopes and glittering generalities.”
“It is a plan that outlines the real work in which we must engage if we are going to transform our community,” Murray said. “We are not so naÃ”ve to believe we are going to accomplish every one of the 190 action items. But I am convinced today that we can together achieve most of those 46 strategic goals and turn most of those 190 action items into reality.
“We did not become what we are today overnight. And we will not become what we can be overnight. But we can begin that process of becoming something else today.”