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Situated in the impoverished Mississippi River Delta, the county has the highest poverty rate, 33 percent; one of the highest unemployment rates, 8.7 percent this fall, and the lowest homeownership rate, 56 percent.

“Phillips County ranks lowest when the goal is highest and highest when the goal is lowest,” a new report from Southern Bancorp Inc. says.

But the rural development bank-holding company says the grassroots Delta Bridge Project is showing signs of turning things around. Southern Bancorp, through its Southern Financial Partners, steers the project. The two-year-old effort focuses solely on reinvigorating the eastern Arkansas county.

Dom Mjartan of Southern Financial Partners said the project is working because the ideas originated with the people who live in the county.

“We’ve seen a lot of great ideas, a lot of Ph.D.s come into Phillips County before and say, ‘This is what you guys need to be doing.’ But they didn’t live there. They didn’t have an appreciation for the challenges,” said Mjartan, vice president of development and investor relations. “We tried a different approach – let’s let the community decide.”

So far, the Delta Bridge Project has meant more than $23.5 million coming into Phillips County, according to Southern Bancorp’s “Progress in the Delta?” report. Examples of its success, the report says, include:

– A $2 million sweet potato processing plant.

– A $30,000 feasibility study for a $25 million biodiesel factory. Construction is to begin in January.

– $100,000 used to raze condemned houses and other buildings, clear vacant lots, and remove more than 250 junk cars.

– A $4.5 million health and wellness center, the county’s largest building project in decades.

– A $116,000 project to create a public transportation system to link parts of the community where few people own cars.

– A $1.5 million, 20-unit low income housing development under construction.

– A legal effort to reclaim intellectual property rights to the “King Biscuit” name for the annual Blues Festival.

– A $240,000 grant to fund the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County.

– Support of $1.8 million to the KIPP charter school. The middle school’s students have gone from a mean of 20th percentile to 90th percentile on standardized tests in four years.

– A $1.5 million campaign to buy a large island in the Mississippi River to develop as an eco-tourism and wetlands restoration site.

– $400,000 to audit and clean up abandoned commercial sites.

Mjartan said hundreds of county residents, local leaders, business owners and government officials began meeting regularly in 2003 and came up with solutions to the county’s debilitated economy and community life. They called it the Phillips County Strategic Community Plan.

The local groups formed teams that sought funding from Southern Bancorp and the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization set up by the family of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton. The foundation pledged $8 million to $10 million dollars toward the effort.

Mjartan said the Delta Bridge Project began in January 2005, with implementation of the community plan. He said there is no term of years that Southern Bancorp has committed to the project.

“It’s a long, long decline that the county has experienced. Everybody understands (it) cannot be reversed in two or three years,” Mjartan said. “Our expectation is it will take a decade or two to reverse its course.”