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In a town revered for its blues music but pitied for its economic blight, nonprofits work to change the tune one business at a time.

On the banks of the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas’ Phillips County lies Helena — technically Helena-West Helena after the cities’ merger in January — a rural town about a half-century removed from its economic high-water mark.

Once a thriving port town with a strong agricultural base, Helena, like so many other places in the Delta, lost many of its jobs to mechanized farming. Soon after, the town’s middle class practically vanished.

Helena is now home to about 15,000 residents, two-thirds of them African-American, and has a median household income of about $20,000 a year, more than $10,000 less than the state average.

Since 1986 Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp and its nonprofit affiliates have worked to revitalize the Delta, particularly starting in the late 1990s. Around that time Southern Bancorp’s nonprofits refocused their efforts to three areas in Arkansas and Mississippi that each cover a 75-mile radius. The regions’ epicenters lie in Arkadelphia, Helena, and near Drew and Shelby, Miss.

The $500 million development bank comprises three commercial banks and three nonprofit groups.

The bank’s nonprofit lending group, Southern Financial Partners of Helena, has helped put together $10 million in grants and loans for the Delta Bridge Project in Helena. The program has helped improve blighted areas of the city, education, housing and tourism to attract internal and external investment.

Another of Southern Bancorp’s nonprofits, Southern Good Faith Fund of Pine Bluff, works to increase the income and assets of low-income and low-skilled residents of the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta region. Between 1999 and 2005, 98 of its clients received more than $3.38 million in loans, grants, Individual Development Account money and owner financing.

But Southern Financial Partners’ and Southern Good Faith Funds’ work in Helena and other parts of Phillips County is best told not through numbers with many zeros but through the small businesses that have benefited from incremental funding and education programs.

For example, Southern Good Faith Fund, through its Asset Builders program, matches $3 to every $1 clients deposit in their Individual Development Accounts, matching up to a maximum $2,000 a person and $4,000 a household. The money can be used to buy a home, start a business or go to college.

It might not sound like much, and some of the participants starting businesses or new careers complain they sought even more money. But those funds, paired with business classes, have made all the difference for some of Helena’s minority-owned businesses.

Faith in Flash

A conversation with Jerry Lamar about his seven-year-old car detail shop sounds as much like a religious testimony as it does a sales pitch. Ask him how he did it, how he fulfilled his dream of owning a business, and Lamar will briefly mention a lifetime of hard work and the money he raided from his retirement fund to start the business. He’ll also give some credit to Southern Good Faith Fund for their financial help and the business classes he took with them.

Those were important ingredients, but that’s not where he wants to dole his gratitude. Instead he points above with both hands and thanks God for owning a business. He thanks God for keeping him healthy for the period he could only clean cars outdoors. For four years Lamar did not get sick once, he said, not even during the cold months, when business was scarce. And, during the chilly offseason when that rare customer would bring him a car to detail, others would complain about the frigid cold water spitting out the cleaning hose.

Lamar would simply say a prayer, he said, and the water would feel lukewarm.

Lamar, now 44, saw plenty of cars during his first career. For about two decades he worked for a local car rebuilder. Then, after several years bouncing back and forth between Wal-Mart, a Harrah’s casino in Tunica, Miss., and the car rebuilder, Jerry Lamar decided to go into business for Jerry Lamar.

In 1999 he started Flash Auto Hook-Up & Detail Shop in Helena. Lamar said starting the business cost about $25,000-$30,000, money he got mostly from his Harrah’s 401(k) plan.

“I built it up on faith,” Lamar said, again his arms pointed above.

And while Lamar’s businesses is not the only car-washing game in town, he insists no one around can detail a car like Flash. Details start at about $100 and can cost as much as $300. But Lamar said that in the car-cleaning business, you get what you pay for.
“If you pay $10 for a job, you get water thrown on your car,” he said.

Late last year he wanted a loan to buy more equipment for his business, and the bank directed him to Southern Good Faith Fund, which does not actually loan money but can connect businesses with groups that do make small loans.

Though Lamar did not get the $4,000 he wanted for a power washer, he said he did get enough money to buy a computer, software, some vacuum cleaners and a few supplies.

He also started attending Southern Good Faith Funds’ Business Development Center classes and learned valuable business skills, such as how to use QuickBooks.

Last November he moved into an indoor space on the west side of town. He hopes to someday run a chicken wings counter in the same building for customers waiting on their cars to be detailed.

On a good day, he and a few part-time employees can detail 13 or 14 cars. And with the weather heating up, he’s sure plenty of good days lie ahead.

Snap Business

Like Lamar, Betty Clarke-Gray had long been exposed to her trade before parlaying her skills into a business. Clarke-Gray grew up in the shadow of other family members’ camera flashes. Her dad was an amateur photographer who had his own darkroom, and her maternal grandfather shot weddings.

Clarke-Gray’s interest in photography as a business was piqued after she had her second child a couple of years ago. Unimpressed with all the hurried, impersonal and subpar family portraits she had made at retail chains, Clarke-Gray knew she could do better. She began intensive research, mostly online, about camera settings, lighting, posing and anything else she could learn.
She also took an online correspondence course where she mailed her photos to instructors in New York then had audio critiques sent back to her.

In September 2005 she opened her home-based photography business, CC Photography, but not without some help from Southern Good Faith Fund.

Clarke-Gray took advantage of the nonprofit’s Individual Development Account program and got the maximum $2,000 matching funds. She used the money to buy equipment off eBay and paid for an advertisement in an online magazine. She also spent $750 on a photography class she is now taking. Another $1,200 still remains from her savings, a testament to the lessons in frugality she learned in Southern Good Faith Fund’s Business Development Center classes.

“I’ve always been the type that if I like it, I buy it,” she said. “They’ve helped me with saving.”

Clarke-Gray also got help putting together a business plan, which she said needs revising because she has met practically all of its goals, including making $5,000 in revenue over a year.

A Sweet Plan

Not all of Southern Bancorp’s nonprofit projects work with small figures. For a handful of Phillips County sweet potato farmers, 112,000 could be an important number in cultivating the area’s agribusiness. That’s how many bushels a new sweet potato storage facility will hold in its first phase.

The new facility, to be completed in time for this fall’s harvest, will allow local growers to keep sweet potatoes fresh for up to 12 months. Previously, local growers had to sell their sweet potatoes around harvest time, when the crop price is typically at its lowest, because there was no proper storage space.

“In order for us to grow and market sweet potatoes on a year-round basis beyond the harvesting season, we have to have adequate storage facilities,” said Harvey Williams, one of the area’s largest growers. “What I mean by adequate, we have to have climate-controlled facilities.”

Williams owns or operates some 200 acres of farmland about 20 miles outside Helena. He mostly grows greens and squash but only a limited amount of sweet potatoes, even though the region has some of the best land in the world for growing the crop.
Southern Financial Partners helped secure $2 million to build the storage facility, whose space Williams and four other farmers will lease. Community leaders hope the facility will increase production of a high-yield crop, increase the number of sweet potato growers in the area and create a new industry that could lead to more value-added processing. That means not only growing, washing, packing and storing the crop but also packaging it to be sold directly to hospitals, supermarkets, schools and other food vendors.

Added sweet potato production could also supply the Gerber Products Co. plant in Fort Smith.

Williams concedes there are no guarantees that the new industry will pan out, but he is happy that at least a seed is being planted.