Southern Bancorp has played a large role in assisting Helena-West Helena with economic development. They want to do the same for Poinsett County.

Anthony Patterson, of Southern Bancorp and president of the Trumann Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said the bank has a rural development status which allows dividends to go toward community development through its non-profit side.

A group of concerned citizens from Poinsett County went to Helena-West Helena on July 19 to see what the bank has done in the community. Leann Lambers, marketing director of Southern Bancorp, spoke with city, county and community leaders on July 15 at the Trumann mayor’s office to discuss the trip.

Helena-West Helena is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and has been considered America’s poorest area with over 25-percent poverty.

Southern Bancorp’s goal to help the impoverished community included a reduction of poverty by 50-percent; a reduction of unemployment; and an improvement in high school graduation numbers. They had a goal to improve economic development and health care.

In 2004, the community was able to hire an outside facilitator experienced in strategic planning to assist the effort. By 2005, they released the first edition of a strategic plan and, today, they are getting their third edition ready for release.

Through a community effort, Helena-West Helena passed a 2-percent sales tax for economic development. “The whole community got behind this effort,” Lambers said. “The community really got the word out and got behind improving the community.” And through an effort of young leaders in the community, they were able to consolidate the cities of Helena and West Helena to one city.

The KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] School of the Delta has been a great success in the community, according to Lambers. She said 100-percent of the 2010 graduating class has been accepted to college. One graduate was accepted to the Naval Academy and one was accepted to Harvard.

Some of the other things Helena-West Helena has been able to do via Southern Bancorp’s help include teacher recruitment and retention; parental involvement; a biodiesel facility; sweet potato farming; a $3 million revolving loan for the downtown area; a small business incubator for entrepreneurs to learn about marketing and what they need to do for their business to succeed; a broadband internet assessment; a farmer’s market at the Court Square Pavilion every Friday; a new library and developed Civil War tourism.

They have opened a wellness center in the community via Delta AHEC. Lambers said the facility has state of the art equipment, classes, and a place for children and an addiction treatment center.

Lambers said the situation in Helena-West Helena works because it is a total community effort. She said that is what it will take for a similar program to work in Poinsett County. “It’s not just one person that does this,” Lambers said. “It is a community effort.”

Poinsett County Judge Charles Nix noted the total community effort has been an issue for the county in any effort. “We have got to get our cities and counties involved here,” Nix said. “We have five cities that are separated and divided. We have no centralized economic development group. We must settle political differences locally and with our statewide office holders.

Near the end of the community meeting, Zack Tucker, of Marked Tree and the Sunken Lands Chamber of Commerce, asked if Southern Bancorp would help with the implementation of the strategic plan. Jackie Ross, director of the Trumann Chamber of Commerce, would not go into specific details but said the bank would assist with the implementation of the plan.