The Mississippi Delta has major disparities when it comes to poverty, education and health, but a new region-wide coalition hopes to tackle those issues.

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18 Counties Band Together to Tackle Big Problems in the Delta

By Daniel Cherry | Published 13 Oct 2011 11:06pm | comments

How do you build up an area dealing with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation along with soaring rates of undereducation and health disparities? MPB's Daniel Cherry reports how an 18 county coalition hopes to find solutions to those problems in the Mississippi Delta.

Mississippi's unemployment rate is about ten percent, but in the Delta those numbers leap up to 11 and 12 percent...and in 7 counties, they're facing more than 15 percent unemployment. Willie Mae Perkins is the Mayor of Shaw where they're really feeling the effects.

"In Shaw we're facing the need for improvement in our infrastructure. Actually we just need an economy boost because we have a lack of jobs. We have a lack of industry. Our revenue, at this time, is down."

For a small town like Shaw it's nearly impossible to boost a revenue base to make necessary improvements without jobs. The Delta lost more than 30 percent of it's manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2005. Leland Speed is the Executive Director of the Mississippi Development Authority. He knows a thing or two about attracting industry. So just what are businesses looking for these days?

"One company feels like that if they see successful high-tech companies in that community that they have a labor market there that's already proven. They don't have to take a guess at it as to whether or not there are qualified people in the area."

Speed says you can't get that skilled workforce without the right education, but some say if they could get the businesses, revenue would increase and all the other problems would work themselves out. Representative John Hines of Greenville believes it's these kind of chicken or egg scenarios that's tying the Delta up.

"If you're in a row boat, and you're rowing East, and then I'm in a rowboat and I'm rowing West all we're going to do is continue to go in a circle. We're not going to get anywhere, but if we make an agreement that we're both going to row West, then we'll get to the other side. We're in the middle of the river just spinning around because we're not rowing together."

That's why developers and strategists from 18 counties joined forces in what's called the Mississippi Delta Strategic Compact. The compact aims to make a concerted effort to make lasting change in the Delta. Dickie Stevens from Isola is the new chairman.

"Instead of having 20 different organizations going in 20 directions, try to find some way to get them together and have them working together so that they can pool their strengths in order to give us the mass to move the Delta forward. We can do it. United we stand. Divided we fall, and we're divided right now. We've got a lot of little organizations running around. If we unite, we'll stand, and that's what we're really trying to do."

They're looking to have communities and counties stop pulling against each other for businesses and resources...instead they want to unite for a common goal...improving the Delta. Darrin Webb is the State Economist. He says if that's going to happen, there has to be improvements in what he calls, human capital, meaning the overall wellness, education, and attitude of citizens.

"I think in Mississippi there's a gap between our human capital and that of the nation of a whole. And then in the Delta there's a greater gap between the Delta and the state. There has to be a focus on human capital. A focus on changing attitudes toward education, changing attitudes toward health care and taking care of yourself. All the life choices that you make."

But in the Delta keeping that human capital at home is a major issue. The region has lost about 15 thousand residents in the past decade and Preston Billings, a former Alderman from Shelby says if you turn the Delta into a place where people want to live other problems will fall in line.

"Economic development is very important, and you have to master those small things first, and that's what we're trying to do. Cleanliness of your community, successful schools, crime rate low, tourism, and entertainment...you've got to have entertainment."

If one thing is certain it's that there's no quick fix. Lack of education feeds poverty and poverty often leads to poor health and more unemployment. It's a cycle that's been going on for generations in the area, but Chairman Dickie Stevens sees this partnership as a good start to finding the solutions.

"Now it's up to us to make it happen, but we see it as an opportunity. The Delta needs to do something. We need an action plan in the Delta that will work, and I believe this will."

While bringing change to the Delta might seem out of sight for some now. Those who are rolling up their sleeves on the Strategic Compact point to improvements in other states like North Carolina and Virginia who have used similar approaches. Organizers like Dickie Stevens are hoping to make the Delta region the nation's next success story.

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