CLARKSDALE — Delta Regional Authority co-chair Pete Johnson was on a roll.
The day before the initial meeting of the DRA board authority, Johnson was busy gathering notes, taking phone calls and finding space in a makeshift office in Clarksdale to organize important documents. He spoke passionately about the task before him: to spur economic development in a 236-county area in an eight-state region where eight million people live, in the newly created federal-state partnership.
Johnson, nephew of Gov. Paul B. Johnson Jr., grandson of Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr., and a former state auditor, was nominated earlier this year by President George W. Bush to be federal co-chairperson of the DRA and confirmed by the U.S. Senate Sept. 26. The DRA was enacted Dec. 27, 2000.
Ronnie Vaughn, CEO of Cleveland Community Bank in Cleveland, said, “I’m real positive about the Delta Regional Authority especially after the confirmation of Pete Johnson. He’s a man who can get things done. With leadership like that, the program can get kicked off and do what was intended.”
Will Mayo, director of economic development for Entergy Mississippi, said, “The entire Entergy economic development team looks forward to working with Pete to bring new investment to the entire Delta.”
“People’s expectations are so incredibly high about this, and the region is being given a huge opportunity,” said Johnson. “However, the funding is so woefully inadequate and that is a concern.”
Johnson will have $30 million this fiscal year to carry out activities prescribed by Congress in the Delta Regional Authority Act. By comparison, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently provided $20 million in seed money for the Emerging Markets Partnership (EMP), an initiative designed to generate a $500-million economic impact in 58 Mississippi Delta counties and parishes, about a fourth the size of the DRA region.
“Our challenge is to turn this region around, from one of poverty to prosperity,” said Johnson. “It will take an enormous commitment from the federal government.”
Cliff Brumfield, owner of Performance Tire Inc. in Greenwood and former executive director of the Greenwood-LeFlore Industrial Board and Economic Development Foundation, said the DRA covers “quite a vast area” for the amount of funding allocated.
“For the mission to be beneficial, there will need to be more money and some targeted areas and pockets of poverty,” he said. “We’ll work with the DRA and our elected leaders to make sure they have our input and our support in growing the Authority to meet the needs of the Delta area.”
At the Nov. 15 meeting, Johnson asked the board authority, comprised of representatives from each of the eight states covered by the DRA, to make Clarksdale, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the DRA’s permanent home instead of Washington, D.C. That decision will be made at the annual National Governors Conference in February.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was elected federal co-chair of the DRA and an action plan was approved, said Hayes Dent, who was appointed acting executive director at the meeting. Dent, of Yazoo City, worked on Gov. Kirk Fordice’s staff, was the alternate Mississippi representative for the Appalachian Regional Commission, and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Johnson said he would like to see Dent named as the executive director.
Johnson’s initial duties will include producing a regional development plan, setting priorities for approval of grants in the region, assessing the region’s needs and assets, informing participating states about interstate cooperation, working with states and local agencies to develop model legislation, enhancing the capacity of and support to local development districts (LDDs) and creating LDDs where none currently exist.
“We recognize that when you say federal programs in this region, in the minds of many, it’s synonymous with mismanagement and bad investments,” Johnson said. “In many cases, skepticism is justified. The first thing we’ve got to do is develop the confidence of the people and of Congress, so when they entrust money to us at the DRA, they will know that money will be spent, jobs will be created, and lives will be changed. Then it’s imperative for us to collaborate with the planning and development districts, cities, counties, and parishes to carry the message of how we can help them.”
Under a revised timeline, Johnson will establish a work plan by the National Governor’s Conference in February to resolve the definition of “economically distressed” counties.
“If you apply the Economic Development Administration’s definition of an economically distressed county to the counties in this region, about 129 of the 236 counties qualify,” Johnson said. “That’s important because 75% of the monies appropriated for the DRA will be spent in those counties, and DRA funds will serve as leverage dollars for other federal programs.
“The real horsepower of the DRA will come from allowing poor cities and counties to use this money to cover the local portion of funds to qualify for federal matching funds. In essence, they’ll receive 100% financing by the federal government for economic development projects.”
In 1999, the Center for Foundations reported that nearly $1 billion had been pumped into the eight states in the DRA region from foundations alone, Johnson said.
“That’s an enormous figure,” he said. “I want to know where it’s going and what successes and failures they’ve had. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. Some established programs are working very well. Let’s look at those and build models, then apply them throughout the region rather than coming up with other programs and hiring more consultants.”
The DRA must prioritize use of federal funds in the following order, with transportation and infrastructure projects receiving at least 50% of the appropriated funds:
• Basic public infrastructure in distressed counties;
• Transportation infrastructure to facilitate economic development;
• Business development, emphasizing entrepreneurship; and
• Job training, emphasizing existing public education institutions located in the region.
“My first hope is that the DRA can make funds available to create new jobs by bringing in industry,” Vaughn said. “We’re losing industry in Cleveland with Tyson closing and DuoFast all but closed. We’re going backwards. We can’t even maintain status quo. Anything that can help create jobs will help us all.”
Brumfield added, “The benefits of increased money for transportation, bridge work and other economic development activities will surely be a blessing to the Delta.”
The 45 Mississippi counties included in the DRA region are Adams, Amite, Attala, Benton, Bolivar, Carroll, Claiborne, Coahoma, Copiah, Covington, DeSoto, Franklin, Grenada, Hinds, Holmes, Humphreys, Issaquena, Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Lawrence, Leflore, Lincoln, Madison, Marion, Marshall, Montgomery, Panola, Pike, Quitman, Rankin, Sharkey, Simpson, Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Tate, Tippah, Tunica, Union, Walthall, Warren, Washington, Wilkinson, Yalobusha, and Yazoo.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.