Cleveland — The mighty river that flows through the alluvial-rich Mississippi Delta might have been the theme for the Delta Council’s 70th-annual meeting May 6 at Delta State University (DSU) in Cleveland, but most of the talk among the region’s business leaders concerned agricultural issues and the advent of Interstate 69.
“The priority over the next two to four years from the broader perspective of business is getting the necessary funding that Congress recently authorized for Interstate 69,” said Chip Morgan, executive director of the Delta Council. “Infrastructure development like an interstate highway brings opportunities to even the most rural communities.”
The $8.6-billion Interstate 69 “NAFTA Freeway” project will span a region between Canada and Mexico, and will require an estimated 25 years to complete. Alignments are still being considered for routing the new interstate through the Mississippi Delta between Benoit and Memphis.
Business leaders were buzzing about the heightened worldwide visibility of the Delta’s agriculture sector, which employs more than 60,000, accounting for nearly half of the region’s total employment, and producing more than 63% of the region’s total income.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative recently relied on feedback from the region’s leading businessmen when preparing for the World Trade Organization talks in Doha, Qatar. The U.S. Department of Commerce, acting through its international trade agency and the Customs Service, has been very responsive and sensitive to the concerns of the Mississippi Delta when guarding the laws of international trade designed to protect the region’s thriving catfish industry. The U.S. Secretary of Treasury relied on notes from his recent visit to the Delta to acknowledge upcoming actions that would result in increasing the buying power of foreign economies through a more balanced foreign exchange rate.
“Every day, we meet a new challenge as it relates to global trade and competitiveness, and so far on balance, everything has been pretty positive, even though that’s not what popular media sources have reported,” said Morgan. “We’ve been very encouraged by where we are in the trade discussions. With so many people counting on agriculture, that’s important.”
In its winter 2005 issue, Southern Business & Development magazine listed the Mississippi Delta on its roster of Ten Comeback Kids for the region’s improving economic picture and one of its Top Ten Stories for the region’s automotive deals.
“The Delta Council has over 4,000 members who are willing to step up and help,” explained Delta Council president Kent Wyatt. “There’s a cohesiveness that brings us all together for the betterment of the region.”
Ken Murphree, immediate past president of the Delta Council, attributes the success to “a large number of leaders who are not content to accept the status quo when, through deliberate, inclusive and reasonable coordination of efforts, positive changes can occur.”
Mississippi Delta leaders have made solid headway “at a time when the ‘sky is falling’ syndrome is much more fashionable” on regional issues ranging from workforce training, teacher shortages, and four-lane highways, to diabetes management, farm policy and adult literacy, said Murphree.
“Just as Delta Council does not get involved in purely local issues, as they are best decided by the people who live and work in those communities, we are not content to defer the solutions for the region’s challenges to those who live far away from here, and therefore are removed from the challenge and the solution,” he said.
Land and water resources
At the annual meeting, Delta leaders also discussed the challenges of groundwater and surface water protection because the region relies so heavily on its land and water resources for its economic viability.
“Delta Council made the formation of a water management district a priority because we knew how important this resource was, and that it be perpetual,” said Travis Satterfield of Benoit, chairman of the council’s rice committee.
William Percy of Greenville, past president of the Delta Council, said the Mississippi River’s “habit of flooding has not changed and its aquifer can be depleted and fouled.”
Keynote speakers Major General Don Riley, director of civil works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and John Barry, author of “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” (Simon & Schuster, 1998), followed the meeting’s theme of “the river that connects us.”
Barry, a Rhode Island native, reminded the audience that the Mississippi River Basin is double the size of the Nile River and is “clearly the most important river valley in the world. Its significance goes well beyond its physical power. It’s created the soul of America.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.