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Phillips County's last gasp? Many pray revival plan, funds are Delta county’s Moses
When the Rev. Arthur Hughes, pastor of Greater First Baptist Church in West Helena, prayed the benediction last week at the announcement of a plan to revive Phillips County, he mirrored the mood of many in this eastern Arkansas town.
“Eternal God our Father … we pray for Phillips County,” Hughes said. “We thank You for hearing our cries and our moans and our groans. We thank You for sending us our Moses to lead us out of this bondage. We pray for unity, for where there is unity we realize there is strength. Let us take our swords and turn them into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and study war no more.”
If Phillips County’s cries and groans are not answered this time, some current and former residents say the area will never be able to recover.
“I think it’s the last chance for any kind of survival,” said D.L. Bailey, former publisher of the Phillips County Progress. “It has been a long time in coming.”
Bailey left Helena almost two years ago when the declining business environment made it impossible to sell enough advertising to make a profit. The city, one of the state’s oldest, had thrived in its early years because of its location on the Mississippi River and the surrounding plantations blessed by the rich Delta soil, but faded during the 20th century as agriculture and transportation modernized.
Now, with assistance from Southern Bancorp and the Walton Family Foundation, Phillips County residents have developed a Strategic Community Plan to establish revival goals. Southern Bancorp owns First Bank of the Delta, which is based in West Helena. The Walton foundation, formed by the founding family of Wal-Mart Stories Inc., has promised to donate $8 million to $10 million for some of the projects, community leaders say.
Becky Hall, director of the Delta Arkansas Health Education Center, has lived in Phillips
County all her life, even though she and her husband, Clark, mayor of nearby Marvell, have had opportunities to leave.
She agrees that the strategic plan could be the county’s final hope.
“If any time is ripe for Phillips County, this is it,” Hall said. “The most exciting thing is that this is written down on paper. We’ve never had 300 people working on a plan. With Southern’s financial leadership and the Walton money, for once we have the money to put these things into implementation.”
Alan Levine, too, has lived all his 58 years in Helena. He has owned Levine’s Office Solutions since 1981 and moved it two years ago out of degenerating downtown Helena to near the West Helena city limits.
“We’ve just deteriorated so badly in eastern Arkansas over the years,” Levine said. “With the economic situation the way it is in Phillips County, any help we can get and any plan that will follow through will be a great help.”
Levine agreed he has never seen as much cooperation from so many people.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of things, in different programs, that get off with a bang but then die by the wayside,” Levine said. “I don’t ever remember a project in this area with as many as 300 people on a team. It’s very encouraging.”
GOALS AND ACTION STEPS
What has people in the county talking is the 40-page strategic plan, which lays out 46 goals for the county in six critical areas: tourism, job creation, housing, education, leadership development and health care. It includes 190 steps to accomplish the goals.
Importantly in this community where there long have been race-based tensions, blacks and whites worked together – for 10 months – to develop the plan.
“I don’t know of any city the size of Helena that has gone through as intensive a goal-setting process as this,” said Phil Baldwin, chief executive officer of Southern Bancorp.
The goals and action steps range from mammoth undertakings to simple, ingenious ideas. Fittingly for a place whose history is so linked to the Mississippi River, one big project includes a plan to develop an intermodal port where barges, trucks and trains could exchange cargo. Another goal is converting two-lane U.S. 49 into a four-lane expressway from Interstate 40 at Brinkley to Helena, and on to the proposed Interstate 69 in Mississippi.
Smaller ideas include formation of a sweet potato distribution center in West Helena that would allow local growers to supply distributors and grocery stores throughout the year. Years ago, Phillips County was known for sweet potatoes, but farmers abandoned the crop for lack of a distribution center.
Benefactors for Phillips County said last week there are indications that Gerber Products Co. may be willing to buy most of the sweet potatoes available from the center when it’s built. The potatoes would be “No. 2 grade,” suitable for baby food.
“I think we probably have the only strategic plan in the nation that envisions the sweet potato as an agent of social change,” Steven Murray, chancellor of Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, said Monday at the unveiling of the plan.
Another plan would develop a historically significant Louisiana Purchase Marker into a high-profile tourist attraction by creating a 26-mile hiking and bike trail from the Mississippi River to the marker. The trail also could be used to promote a Louisiana Purchase marathon race.
Other goals include building a life-size replica of Fort Curtis in Helena, around which a Civil War battle was fought; inviting nationally known architects, preservationists and developers to work on ideas to improve downtown Helena’s Cherry Street and adjacent areas, which played an early role in blues music history; and developing a home-ownership program that educates prospective home buyers on skills such as budgeting and family economics. “There have been plans made in the county before and that was all that was done; they were just typed up,” said Michael Boone, a community development officer for Southern Financial Partners, an affiliate of Southern Bancorp. “But this strategic plan already has funding for one project, the $1.3 million housing facility in West Helena. That’s a great statement saying this plan is truly made of the community and is community focused.”
The plan calls for Phillips County to be a “model community for the Delta” by 2010. Complete redevelopment of the county will take longer than that, though.
“Everything that needs to be done in the community is not in that [plan] book,” said Boone, 27, who has lived in Phillips County all his life except for four years at the University of Mississippi. “Hopefully if we just follow along with the processes in the strategic plan, I think we’ll be successful.” The final plan doesn’t include the cost, but an early draft indicated it would take almost $200 million. The intermodal port alone would cost $141 million, but planners hope federal funding would be available for that and the U.S. 49 project.
But jobs – and tax revenue – would be created by results like the sweet potato distribution center. Also, a 2004 pre-feasibility study prepared by Winrock International determined a biodiesel industry was viable in the area, and the viability likely will be even stronger as petroleum prices have soared this year.
The planners agree some steps must be accomplished quickly to build confidence.
“In the strategic plan, there are some quick wins, things that can happen by year end, just to show people this is an actual plan that is going to be implemented,” Boone said.
Among jobs that already have begun are removal of more than 40 substandard houses and hauling off more than 180 abandoned vehicles, Boone said.
“You’re beginning to notice that the town looks a lot cleaner,” Baldwin said.
One major problem is the possibility the Arkansas Department of Education will take over the Helena-West Helena School District, one of 11 districts in the state declared fiscally distressed. Last week, a five-member team from the department went to Helena to be sure the district gets “its fiscal house in order.”
The department has been requesting information from the district for two months to help local officials create a fiscal-distress plan. The district has a projected negative balance of $2.26 million for the 2005-2006 school year.
Most people did not want to comment last week about the district’s woes, but several whispered that it might be best if the state does take control of the district. Other major problems are the past animosity between the two cities and simmering
Other major problems are the past animosity between the two cities and simmering tensions between blacks and whites.
Voters decided in December to merge Helena, population about 5,700, and adjacent West Helena, which has about 7,900 residents. Even so, distrust remains in each town. Local lawyer Jimmie Wilson and four members of the West Helena City Council sued recently in an effort to overturn the December vote.
But after years of feuding, the cities are cooperating to some degree.
About 120 of the 300 people who worked together on the redevelopment plan were black.
“We did it with no one standing up and walking out,” said Murray, the college chancellor. “And given the way we usually do things around here, that in itself was no small accomplishment.”
Baldwin, the Southern Bancorp chief executive officer, said he wants Helena to be the hub of its revival endeavors, covering a 75-mile radius of Helena.
“Eastern Arkansas, south of Interstate 40, does not have an anchor,” he said. “We’re proposing to make Helena that anchor.”