Poverty has been a hallmark of the Mississippi River Delta Region, but a federally funded organization is attempting to stem that generations-long problem.
One tool utilized by the Delta Regional Authority is its Delta Leadership Institute Executive Academy, and eight Arkansans have been chosen to participate in the program, DRA Co-chairman Chris Masingill told Talk Business & Politics.
“Our whole focus is to do community and economic development … our primary investments are in people,” he said.
DRA receives about $31 million per year from the federal government to invest in projects to help spur economic development in its coverage area. DRA stretches along the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Illinois, and roughly half of Arkansas in its area. There are eight states aided by DRA.
Projects supported by DRA include water and sewer line upgrades, greater broadband internet access, rail line improvements, and others. Projects are selected based on their worthiness to attract jobs and other economic opportunities to a community. For example, if a steel company wants to locate in a certain town, but it doesn’t have sufficient water lines, DRA can invest in upgrading those lines to satisfy the prospect, Masingill said.
In 2015, DRA invested about $1.5 million in nine Arkansas projects. The “leveraged” economic investment created by these equates to about $338 million, Masingill said. Since its inception in 2000, DRA has directly invested $22 million in Arkansas projects and those projects have retained or created about 4,000 jobs in the eastern half of the state, he said.
DRA has directly invested $138 million through this year, and the leveraged value of that investment has topped $2.9 billion, the chairman said. DRA is able to join in public-private partnerships, similar to economic development agencies like the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The organization is often called when a major industrial prospect is vetting a town or area. DRA is often on the “ground floor” of these projects, meaning it has a better chance of investing in projects that will aid communities the most, he said.
“It’s about creating economic opportunities for our people,” he said.
A number of projects are in the vetting stage, Masingill said. Announcements will be held in conjunction with the state in coming weeks, he added.
Besides the infrastructure investments, DRA has developed programs to help small businesses and entrepreneurs. One of those programs is the Leadership Academy. Participants will spend a year learning about the entire region from an economic standpoint and will also learn what resources are available, Masingill said. Members will learn valuable leadership and networking skills and will become part of the DRA’s Leadership alumni network. The network has more than 400 members, he said.
Each state in the DRA coverage area selects five participants per year. The governor’s in those states select five applicants and then and additional 10 “wild card” applicants from across the DRA coverage area are selected by the organization.
Officials try to select members from a broad career, ethnic, gender, age, and other ranges to give each class a unique insight to others around the region, he said. Participants will travel to Washington D.C. and other locations across the DRA region to attend numerous classes. Economic development, leadership, workforce training and education, entrepreneurship and other subject areas will be discussed.
Following are the Arkansans chosen to serve in the Leadership Academy in the coming year:
• Karen Castle – AEDC project manager
• Tina Cole – Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District community and economic development coordinator
• John Davis – University of Arkansas at Monticello professor, governmental relations
• Adam Fogelman – Pulaski County attorney
• Alexandra Johnston – AEDC rural services director
• Dr. Cliff Jones – Arkansas State University Mid-South vice-president of instruction
• Courtland Sykes – U.S. House of Representatives military and veterans’ affairs representative
• Jason Willett – FJW Consulting president