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October 28, 2012Posted Wednesday, October 31, 2012, at 8:45 AM
I spent part of this past Tuesday and Wednesday in West Memphis, Arkansas at a meeting of The Delta Grassroots Caucus which was organized by the Delta Regional Authority. City Administrator Ted Bellers and Councilman Charles Dierks also attended. The DRA is a commission made up of the governors of the eight states that border the Mississippi River Delta. The area encompasses two hundred fifty-three counties or parishes.
The primary reason we attended the meeting and the stated purpose of the caucus was to discuss economic development in the delta. To borrow a chamber of commerce phrase from our past, Malden is "smack dab in the middle" of Missouri's portion of the delta.
We listened to many speakers. The Governor of Arkansas spoke to us. There were three United States Congressman present and a United States Senator. The Attorney General of Arkansas made a speech. The Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee talked. There were high level representatives from FedEx and Wal-Mart and others from the private sector. Academic people from Arkansas State University, Murray State University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Memphis were present. Personally, I thought one of the best speeches was made by Glen Fenter, the President of Mid-South Community College. Mr. Fenter was passionate and articulate about the need to educate people (the work force) in our area, and that for most of our population it must be done by non-traditional means. I would recommend Mr. Fenter as a guest speaker to any group or institution involved with this area and its people.
The condensed version of what we heard is that the search for the "lottery win" industry employing hundreds of people is largely a waste of time. There are a few large employers out there, but if they are seeking a place to locate, they will find you rather than you seeking them. I was struck by the similarity of stories told by the participants in the caucus. Everyone could remember when their communities had a shoe factory, or a garment factory, or a soft drink bottling plant. I can remember when Malden was two for three on that list, and Bernie had the shoe factory. The consensus is that those employers are gone and not coming back any time soon.
So what do we do? The general opinion is that you build from within. You look for established businesses in your town that can use some assistance, and try to give them some help. Demand that your local school system be as good as anyone's. Insist that the community you live in look as good as possible. We shouldn't accept decrepit buildings and junk or trash in plain sight. I believe Malden is working on these issues. The communities that survive will be the ones that work the hardest and with the best success.
I sat next to a woman named Mildred Barnes Griggs. I asked, at one point, if I could bring her a bottle of water. She responded, "Thank you, but I'm scheduled to speak next." Ms. Griggs is the Dean and Professor Emeritus of the University of Illinois College of Education. She is a small wiry woman who has returned to her home in Lee County, Arkansas after being away for forty years. Lee County is the poorest county in the 49th poorest state. Ms. Briggs said she, "Went back to give back."
Glen Fenter, who I mentioned earlier, echoed this same sentiment. We heard from those who can be called "heavy hitters," but the words that resonated the most were from people like Ms. Briggs and Mr. Fenter. They said GET INVOLVED in your community. If you are not happy with the state of education in your town then run for the school board or attend the meetings and ask questions. The same goes for your local government. Do not sit passively on the side lines. We all need to get in the game. Our very survival as a community depends on it, and that was the message I brought back from the Delta Regional Authority Caucus in West Memphis, Arkansas.
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