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Place-based Initiative Benefits Phillips County in Delta
Community development financial institutions (CDFIs) focus primarily on delivering financial products and services to underserved markets. Although products and services are important for economic revitalization, it had become increasingly clear to Southern Financial Partners, a 501(c)3 and a CDFI, that vibrant communities require far more than increasing access to capital. So it worked with its affiliate, Southern Bancorp (collectively “Southern”), a multibank holding company, to develop a place-based, comprehensive community development initiative.
Southern’s new approach called for a county-level, bank-centered development strategy that would engage the diverse communities situated around its headquarters in Helena-West Helena, Ark. Southern selected Phillips County, Ark., a highly distressed community deep in the Arkansas Delta, with a poverty rate of 30 percent, one of the highest in the country.
Southern Financial Partners provided funding for the community to hire an outside facilitator to walk the community through a resident-driven community planning process. Lasting more than a year and involving more than 300 residents, the planning process resulted in the Phillips County Strategic Community Plan. A 50-member steering committee unanimously passed the plan in January 2005.
The plan provided more than 40 strategic goals and nearly 200 action steps to help the community turn itself around in economic development, education, housing, health care and local leadership.
One of the key differences in Southern’s approach from typical development plans is that Southern is physically part of the local community, both in its banking and technical support services.
By helping to match community priorities to resources, Southern Financial Partners and the Phillips County community have leveraged more than $58 million for the community development project. Investments include a $25 million biodiesel facility, a $4.5 million new health-and-wellness center, a $1.5 million high-quality affordable housing complex and a public charter school. (The school is KIPP Delta College Preparatory School, where students who once scored in the bottom quartile in testing are now scoring in the top quartile.) While community development is often a process that requires a sustained effort to build momentum, Phillips County is demonstrating that change is possible even in the most distressed communities.
The active involvement of Southern’s banks in the community is a vital ingredient for success. Together, Southern’s banks and nonprofits can convene the business, public and nonprofit communities to address the full range of challenges that constrain a community. The power of the plan is also evident in the fact that the cities of Helena and West Helena set aside historical grievances and merged on Dec. 31, 2005. The combined city’s residents elected a new generation of leaders with the energy to implement a new vision and passed a two-cent sales tax, which really represents concrete evidence that the community is ready to invest in its future.
As the effort in Phillips County continues, Southern is successfully replicating its efforts in Clark County, Ark., and Sunflower County, Miss. The evidence to date demonstrates that a new community development model is emerging.
Ben Steinberg is president of Southern Financial Partners (SFP), a Southern Bancorp affiliate, which provides both comprehensive community development services in Arkansas and development lending in Arkansas and Mississippi. Southern Bancorp is a $575 million multibank holding company. While at SFP, Steinberg has focused on its DeltaBridge Project, a comprehensive community development initiative in Phillips County, Ark., one of the most distressed counties in the country. The project has invested more than $8 million in PhillipsCounty, leveraging more than $58 million in grants and loans for the local community. Steinberg joined SFP after working overseas for 10 years, primarily managing microfinance programs in Central Asia, the former Soviet Union and East Africa. In addition to his work at SFP, Steinberg serves on the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ newly formed Community Development Advisory Council, the Local Advisory Council for the Mid-South Delta LISC and the Delta Cultural Center. In 2007, Steinberg received the Arkansas Business Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award.