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Visitors from throughout the county, and even some foreign countries, are raving about the amenities at the new B.B. King Museum in Indianola. A big part of what made that possible was a $250,000 grant from Southern Bancorp (Southern).

At its recent annual meeting, the American Bankers Association (ABA) recognized Southern for its efforts in revitalizing rural communities. Part of that effort includes the grant to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.

The new B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, which opened in September of 2008, counts Southern Bancorp as their key early corporate supporter.

“When George Purcell and his board at Southern Bancorp (then Delta Southern Bank) committed early on to a $250,000 naming opportunity, they became our largest local donor,” says Bill McPherson of Indianola, president of the B.B. King Museum board. “This was huge in building our credibility and convincing others to come on board, especially here at home.”

The museum raised $1.8 million in Sunflower County, showing strong local support before asking for money farther afield. Soon after, other companies and foundations came forward with major gifts, including Kellogg, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and AT&T, which funded the Education Building at the Museum.

Before the doors even opened, the museum staff began fulfilling the education and community outreach portion of its mission through programs in Delta schools. High school and college students are employed part-time as interns, developing programs and participating in the work of the museum.

More than 4,000 students statewide trained with a visiting artist from Chicago, and 1,200 of them performed on harmonica in a parade for the Grand Opening. Free seminars on horticulture and Delta culture have been presented, as well as performances by visiting musicians. Yoga classes and guitar lessons are offered each week for small fees, and a mentoring program for young women has been launched.

“We see the museum as a focal point for good things happening in Sunflower County and throughout the Delta,” says Connie Gibbons, executive director. “We’re serious about making an impact, and we’re glad to have this fun setting to attract people to our programs.”

The donation to the B.B. King Museum is just a small part of the rural development programs that garnered Southern Bancorp the national ABA Community Bank Award recognizing the bank’s outstanding charitable achievements.

Southern Bancorp is a development bank holding company and certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) committed to transforming the Delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi. One of Southern’s projects, which began in 2003, is the Delta Bridge Project of HelenaWest Helena, Ark., which is one of the most low-income areas of the nation. The Delta Bridge Project is a long-term plan to not only to reverse the fortunes of Phillips County, which has seen a 50 percent population decline since 1960, but also to make it an engine for economic development for the surrounding regions.

“Mechanization of agriculture, the decline of the family farm, and the loss of numerous industrial and manufacturing jobs have resulted in a severe out-migration in Phillips County,” said Phillip N. Baldwin, president and CEO of Southern. “Phillips County also faces a 34.7 percent poverty rate and has only a 65 percent high school graduation rate. Less than 10 percent of students currently enrolled in public schools can expect to graduate from college. These factors lead to a reinforcing cycle of poverty and a general decline in the community.”

To start with, Southern facilitated the creation of a comprehensive strategic plan that involved more than 300 residents participating in hundreds of meetings. Once the Phillips County Strategic Community Plan was ratified by a unanimous vote of residents, Southern worked to secure endorsements from the community, civic, business, and government organizations in Phillips County and throughout the State of Arkansas, making the plan the official development plan for Phillips County.

In just four years Southern has helped leverage more than $63 million in investment into Phillips County priorities. “The results include the largest new business venture, the largest construction project, the largest affordable housing development, and the most successful educational outcomes in the county’s history,” Baldwin said. “Inspired by these concrete indicators of progress, Phillips County residents are more optimistic and engaged than they have been in decades.”

Highlights include construction of a $25-million biodiesel plant that is expected to create more than 100 jobs and a Knowledge Is Power Program (“KIPP”) charter school that serves approximately 300 students. Baldwin said the 95 percent African American middle school has been astonishingly successful. The first group of students has gone from a mean 20th to 90th percentile on standardized tests in four years.

“With the help of Southern’s financial backing, the KIPP School plans to expand their facility to include Kindergarten through 12th grade,” Baldwin said. “In 2008, the KIPP Delta program was named one of three Blue Ribbon Schools in Arkansas by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Other accomplishments included building a 32,000-square-foot health and wellness center, the Delta Area Health Education Center (AHEC); construction of a $2.1 million sweet potato storage facility, creating the opportunity for another new industry to locate in this region; completion of a 20-unit, affordable housing development; formation of a Boys & Girls Club that will serve over 1,000 high risk youth in 2009; and removing 275 dilapidated structures and 400 abandoned cars, vastly improving neighborhood pride and community image. Southern funded $246,215 for the project.

“The accomplishments of the Delta Bridge Project not only have generated substantial economic development for the community; but also have increased civic cooperation, renewed optimism, and encouraged a spirit of hope,” Baldwin said. “Attendance at civic events is at an all-time high, and residents continue to volunteer their time and energies to push the Delta Bridge Project forward.”

Baldwin said the success in Phillips County provides hope that the Delta Bridge Project can be used as a model to help other impoverished regions of the country. To this end, Southern is working in Clark County, Arkansas, and Sunflower County, Mississippi, to bring about revitalization in those struggling communities, as well.