Economic decline during the past 30 years in the Mississippi Delta Region has shuttered many farm communities. At least one Mississippi County town is fighting back.
Moving Manila Forward, an organization seeking nonprofit status, is creating a plan of action to help Manila to thrive in a rapidly changing economy, member Natalie Fleeman told Talk Business & Politics.
The first step in the plan was to host a community festival and on April 21, the town held its Blazing BBQ Festival. The crowd size was hard to gauge, but planners anticipated several thousand visitors, Fleeman said.
“We want to turn into a Brookland or a Bono. We don’t want to blow away like a tumbleweed,” she said. “We’re trying to stem the tide. We’re rallying the troops.”
Manila has a population of about 3,300 and along with Wilson, is one of just two communities in Mississippi County that have experienced population growth according to the last Census, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service professor of economic and community development David Peterson told Talk Business & Politics. The new-age economy is changing and urbanization has devastated rural parts of the Delta, he said. In Mississippi County, Peterson noted there are about 33 houses under construction, and at least 28 of them are in Manila.
“Our purpose is to help communities learn how to become vibrant and stable,” he said.
Manila is about 45 minutes east of Jonesboro and about 20 minutes west of Blytheville. The town sits on Arkansas 18, and the recent highway expansion should help, Fleeman said. The Big Lake Wildlife Management Area, a popular destination for hunters and bird watchers is near Manila. Duck hunters flock to Big Lake each year, and many types of migratory birds, including bald eagles, nest in the area.
Mississippi County is the easternmost county in Arkansas. Residents have a median income of $35,000 and 24.6% of the population lives at or below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Moving Manila Forward began more than a year ago when members of the Manila Pilots Association decided to garner more exposure for the airport, said Fleeman’s husband Andrew Fleeman. The idea evolved to include the entire community and a direction forward, he said. Andrew Fleeman is the chairman of MMF. It has eight key volunteers and about 50 total members.
Peterson is part of a community revitalization program, Breakthrough Solutions, and MMF is one of the member organizations. It’s one of the few towns in the Delta, along with Newport, to utilize the program, he said. Each community is unique, and identifying assets and leveraging them is the key, Peterson said. A plan of action or future blueprint was developed in Manila. One of its key assets is its airport.
Revitalization advocates conducted a survey and held community meetings. Many residents complained about not having enough social activities, Fleeman said. In response, MMF partnered with the Manila Fire Department to host the festival. They found sponsors to cover the $11,000 festival budget, and an army of volunteers worked the festival, she added. A portion of any profits from vendors who worked the festival will go to the MMF, she said.
The preliminary blueprint has identified five areas of economic focus – aviation, economic development, agriculture, downtown revitalization and quality of life. Each focus area has a committee within MMF, Fleeman said.
Economic conditions will be much different in the coming years, Peterson said. At one time a lack of jobs was the primary concern for communities, and then it became workforce development. The new trend is quality of life. Geographic location will be a lesser concern, and people will live in places that cater to their quality of life needs. What was true in the past about economic development is not true now and it won’t be in the future, he added.
“There are three kinds of communities. There are proactive, reactive, and retroactive,” he said. “Proactive communities will be successful in the future.”
The next step for MMF is to acquire nonprofit status. There has been a push to put together an air show, Natalie Fleeman said. A website is in the works, and an aviation mechanic is contemplating moving his business from Springfield, Mo., to the Manila Airport, Andrew Fleeman said. The city has a water park, and the Manila School District is slated to open a new $20 million high school this fall. A lot of volunteer hours have been expended and many more will be in the future, she said.
“We want to preserve our town. … We want to preserve our future.”