Clarksdale — Pete Johnson was ecstatic. He had just capped a staff meeting by chatting up the great strides the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) has made since Johnson started the federal agency from his personal cell phone.
“I’m just real pleased with where we are right now,” said Johnson, federal co-chair of DRA, a federal-state partnership serving a 240-county/parish area in an eight-state region. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d make it, and some said it was nothing but a boondoggle, but I got my clear instructions from the President, who told me to cut out duplication and waste. Senators Cochran and Lott said to make good and wise investments. We’ve done all that, and I hope to goodness that as a banker, I’ve made sound investments.”
Johnson was especially gleeful about the outcome of the Regional Listening Forum and Business Expo, the first of only three in the nation, held May 25 at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale.
When event co-sponsors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development and the Minority Business Development Agency of the Department of Commerce initially approached Johnson about the forum, they told him to expect 150 people at the most. When nearly 400 people from Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana showed up, they deemed it a huge success.
Turning attention to the Delta
“I’ve been working tirelessly to get this nation to turn its head and look at the problems of the Delta, and what pleased me the most, and was the most important aspect of this whole meeting, was that for the first time since our agency was created, this nation’s eye was turned toward the Delta,” said Johnson. “I’ve been pounding on doors for over three years and the door has finally swung open. Wide.”
The listening forum was part of an aggressive marketing and outreach effort to increase awareness of more than 40 USDA housing, business and community infrastructure investment programs available in rural areas, with a special emphasis placed on increasing awareness among qualified underserved residents and communities.
As a venture capital entity, Rural Development has invested more than $50 billion since the beginning of the Bush Administration to provide equity and technical assistance to finance and foster growth in home ownership, business development and critical community and technology infrastructure. As a result, more than 800,000 jobs have been created or retained through these investments.
Focused on outreach
“Since I have been state director, I have focused on outreach,” said Nick Walters, state director of USDA Rural Development. “The listening session in Clarksdale was another step in the direction of outreach to minority business owners and those who aspire to be in that category. From here, we must move forward to continue to get the word out to potential minority entrepreneurs about the help available to them.”
Featuring Johnson, USDA Rural Development Undersecretary Gil Gonzalez and Ronald Langston, director of the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency and 13 local speakers, the forum was designed to elicit recommendations from community leaders and business owners on ways to improve the delivery of USDA and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s business programs to minority entrepreneurs.
“I walked away from the forum realizing that one of the key obstacles for minority businesses is technical assistance to secure financing to start, grow or expand a business,” said Gonzalez. “It’s essential to get them to the next place.”
Johnson had warned Gonzalez and Langston “people down here are pretty expressive.”
“They might get up and start railing on you, but these guys told me they were ready to hear it,” said Johnson, who described the mood as very positive. “Paul Shanks (of Shanks Enterprise) stood up and looked Mr. Gonzalez in the eye and told him the President had said that homeownership was the number one wealth builder in the nation. He told him, ‘I’m in the home building business. And I have an appointment to see you next week. We’re going to talk about what your agency can do to help us create homeowners in the Mississippi Delta.’ Mr. Gonzalez was very appreciative of that, and I thought it was a real neat exchange.”
Rev. James Smith, the head of economic development for the Town of Rayville, La., pointed out that Louisiana has the nation’s second-highest percentage of high school dropouts and discussed ways that communities could motivate its residents to continue their education.
“We always build apartments, but people in the Delta need homes,” he told the crowd. “It gives them a sense of pride and character, and they feel good about themselves. If they’re proud of their homes, they want to find jobs and keep them. Companies will move in where there’s home ownership.”
Cutting through the red tape
A common theme revolved around the enormous amount of government red tape involved for businesses — local, state or federal — to get started and remain sustainable, said Johnson.
“Entrepreneurs are good at what they do, whether it’s baking cakes or fixing automobiles, but when it comes to filling out reports or applying for assistance, they don’t have that skill,” he said. “It takes them longer than big companies that have the resources to commit. One of our responsibilities at DRA is to help cut through a lot of the red tape and add value to existing efforts in the region by streamlining the process.”
The enormous amount of networking done at the event was an unexpected benefit, said Johnson.
“Even while the morning session was going on, people were standing in the hallways and outside, passing out business cards,” he said. “After it was over, everyone hung around and mingled in the corridors, talking to each other. We had a lot of positive things come out of it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.