When Rex Nelson was named the Delta Regional Authority co-chairman more than 10 years ago, he noticed a significant problem in communities throughout the eight state DRA territory. When technological advances and automation greatly reduced the agriculture workforce after World War II, many southerners fled to the manufacturing hotbed in the North.
To compete, economic developers in the south created an “Industrial Park Model” that became a template in towns and cities throughout the region. These communities would pour all of their resources into developing a park to lure a major manufacturer. The lack of unions in the south helped many communities land shoe, clothes, and other manufacturers, Nelson said.
Times changed but many of these communities didn’t and soon those parks and the buildings were vacant. Nelson, a columnist with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and contributor to Talk Business & Politics, spoke Thursday (April 25) at the Greater Delta Region Conference held on the Arkansas State University Mid-South campus in West Memphis.
“They were focused on industrial development not community development … community development has to be first,” he said.
Communities need to not just focus on major manufacturers, but small businesses, too he said. Quality of life metrics such as the quality of the local school system, race relations, the viability of a community’s downtown, roads are more important to job-creating businesses than the perks offered in industrial parks, he added.
The purpose of the conference is to highlight job creation at good wages, education, workforce development and related economic development initiatives for the vast, economically challenged region from New Orleans through Mississippi, Arkansas, Memphis to southern Illinois and Missouri, Lee Powell, Delta Caucus Director said.
Other speakers during the two-day event include Mike Preston, Director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Mayor James Strickland of Memphis, Arkansas Senate Minority leader Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis, President David Rudd of the University of Memphis, Mid-South ASU Chancellor Debra West, Victor Jones of the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans, and Daryl Bassett, Director of the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services.
The spring Delta conference has usually been held in Washington, D.C., but state, local and private sector initiatives are currently more promising than the federal level, so the Delta Caucus decided to convene in West Memphis in the heart of the Delta region, Powell said.
The Delta Caucus supports the SNAP nutrition program and opposes Trump administration efforts to undermine the program through a proposed administrative order that would subvert Congress’ will as clearly expressed when it passed last year’s farm bill, which preserved SNAP intact, Powell said. That bill had extensive bipartisan support, including Republican leaders such as Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
“We all know a good job is the best economic development policy, but you can’t keep or find a job if you’re sick or hungry, so these safety net programs are essential parts of economic development as well,” Powell added.