Local leaders in business, education and government met Thursday with representatives of Southern Bancorp, a development committed to helping transform rural economies.

St. Francis County Judge Gary Hughes introduced Phil Baldwin, C.E.O. of Southern Bancorp, and set the stage for the meeting by telling those in attendance that Southern Bancorp was, in effect, taking over for the Foundation for the Mid-South.

“Several years ago, we were contacted by the Foundation for the Mid-South, out of Jackson, Miss., that St. Francis County had been selected to be considered for some grants that were possible through the Walton Foundation,” said Hughes. “We worked with them for several years, we developed a strategic plan for St. Francis County, and identified various projects and needs we had in our community. Finally, we received a grant in the fall of 2008 for the Boys and Girls Club. We were very, very pleased with this.”

Hughes said that shortly after receiving the grant, the county was notified that it would no longer be working with the Foundation for the Mid-South, but with Southern Bancorp.

“That is the organization now that the Walton Foundation grants are being funneled through,” said Hughes.

Baldwin then spoke, and said the $600 million company was formed in the 1980s, with the intent of bringing capital to rural Arkansas.

“The intent was to try to employ a business enterprise like a bank to revitalize communities in Arkansas,” he said.

Although he said there is a nonprofit side to their efforts, he said the banking side is different.

“Our bank is not a nonprofit bank,” said Baldwin. “We don’t give money away free. We are not a charity, on the banking side.”

He said there is no magic bullet.

“We can’t do anything special or magical. We just have a process that we’ve seen work,” said Baldwin.

He said they have done a similar process in Phillips County.

“What we like to do is assist the community in mobilizing an effort that you will lead. And one of our fundamental beliefs is that in order for this effort to be successful, the business community has to take leadership,” said Baldwin, “in partnership with the county government and in partnership with the mayors, in partnerships with the nonprofits.”

“But our model is a business-led model,” he continued. “We don’t have a lot of meetings where we just talk. We like to talk and decide, and then go do something.”

He said that in Phillips County over the last four years, about $70 million in funds have been brought in to the county.

“Some of that is private money. You can only get grants for so many things,” he said. “What you need to do is bring in private enterprise, private business investment. That’s really how you create jobs. That’s how you create long-term opportunity. We believe in bringing in private capital, private investment, into an area.”

He said people in St. Francis County don’t know him or Bancorp, but he said the Waltons asked them to come anyway.

“What we want to do is work with you all for a year — if you all want us,” said Baldwin.

“We’re not going to try to re-do your strategic plan. We’re not going to try to have a lot of community meetings. What we’re hoping is that you all can learn about us and we can learn about you, and at the end of that year, where we hope we’ll be at, is to get together for a really great strategic effort in St. Francis County.”

“Our effort will be different from the one you just went through (with the Foundation for the Mid-South),” he said. “Our effort will be more business-based. Our goals will be more strategic. They will involve bringing in organizations that will employ people. They will be long-term. They will not be easy. Some will be accomplished quickly, some may take 20 or 30 years…But you have to start somewhere.”

He said the process has worked, and shared a couple of projects from Phillips County which were successful.

One was the cleanup of Helena-West Helena, in which he said some 300 abandoned buildings have been torn down and some 700 abandoned cars have been hauled away.

He said there is a master plan for downtown Helena, and a low-income loan fund for redeveloping the downtown area.

The biggest single project was the establishing of a biodiesel plant, which included feasibility studies and then a business plan.

“A couple of local business interests looked at this…and they have built a 40-million gallon biodiesel plant that is in the final stages of testing now. Most was financed by Met Life, it was built by an Australian company.”

He continued. “There was some grant money in this, but it was minuscule compared to the private investment.”

Joe Black, also with Southern Bancorp, handed out a “Guidance Document” which those attending were asked to study, and then meet again on Feb. 17.

The document acknowledges that there are also some projects under way locally, and proposes a “limited program expansion” and then “assess St. Francis County’s readiness to embark on a more full-fledged strategic planning effort.

The document proposes to implement two or three projects from among the pre-identified projects, including:

• A master plan and business and industry development program.

• Community cleanup, which is already under way in some towns but would be expanded to the entire county.

• A municipal accounting program to provide special software and training to city officials.

• The LEAD Program, an intense technical assistance program currently used in all the public school districts in St. Francis County. Southern Bancorp may seek to coordinate other education improvement projects with this program.

• Technical assistance to the Boys and Girls Club.

• Teach for Arkansas, a program developed by the University of Arkansas at Monticello and East Arkansas Community College, to provide incentives for local students to receive teaching degrees (provided that after receiving certification, graduates work in St. Francis County for at least two years).

• Master Teaching program, which provides intensive training for 30 teachers to pursue National Board Certification.

Any of the programs are contingent on the application’s approval by the local community, Southern Bancorp and the Walton Family Foundation.