Infrastructure, workforce development, and small business growth have been the major areas of focus for Chris Caldwell’s three years at the helm of the Delta Regional Authority.
The DRA turned 20 years old this year. It was launched with bipartisan support during the Bill Clinton administration.
Caldwell, federal co-chair of the DRA, said his agency has been a solid partner with a number of local advocacy organizations and government entities to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars for Delta investments.
“Over the last 20 years, the agency has invested in over $250 million across our four basic infrastructure portfolios that we have mandated by Congress, which is basic public infrastructure, transportation infrastructure, workforce development, and then small business development with an emphasis in entrepreneurial-ism,” he said. “But the bulk of it is in the first two in the infrastructure categories.”
The DRA covers 272 counties and parishes in eight states that include portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. It uses funding through its budget to support projects ranging from wastewater systems to highway projects and targeted workforce training to entrepreneurial initiatives.
Caldwell highlights a recent $8 million investment he helped leverage with $250 million in private capital at the Little Rock Port Authority that helped complete road and rail expansions. Those infrastructure improvements helped land three international companies and 1,500 jobs. On a smaller scale, there have been investments at the Helena-West Helena port that have resulted in business development in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
“At any point in time, if there was a project where we can invest directly in the infrastructure of that community that directly relates to the enhancement of business in the growth – I think that’s our biggest success.
Caldwell says over the last 20 years the Delta region of the U.S. has not only been bruised by the long-term shifts of economic decline, but population losses have compounded the poverty of the region. He says of all the indicators to watch, the generational poverty number is a barometer that will define future progress.
“The generational poverty number for me is what we look at and moving that generational poverty line. I think there is obviously over 20 years, a lot has changed technology-wise and the way data is collected. So we’ve made some significant changes in how we address that, but moving the generational poverty line, which is I think one of the biggest indicators of basically the decline or growth that you see.”
Watch Caldwell’s full interview in the video below for more on workforce development and how he sees this being a larger mission for the DRA in the future.