Cleveland — Manufacturing jobs in the Mississippi Delta have declined significantly in the past 10 years, and that trend doesn’t look like it will turn around any time soon. The region is expected to continue to lose manufacturing jobs in the future, and the outlook for attracting new major manufacturers is equally dismal. As a result, the population of the Delta is expected to decline over the next 15 years.
What should be done about it? Entrepreneurs to the rescue may be the region’s best hope for economic development that will help the tax base of Delta communities while promoting local businesses.
“Opportunities for growth in the Delta may largely depend on using local resources and local talent to promote new small or niche businesses,” says Dr. Brent Hales, director of the Center for Business and Entrepreneurial Research at Delta State University.
Delta State University, through its College of Business, Center for Business and Entrepreneurial Research, Small Business Development Center and Center for Community and Economic Development, partnered recently with the Mississippi Micro Enterprise and Assistance Network to hold the first Delta Business and Entrepreneurial Symposium. About 80 people attended the event.
“It went great,” Hales said. “We had a wide range of professionals in addition to both new and emerging entrepreneurs. We had representatives from government, businesses and non-profits. We were also blessed to have large representation from the financial community, which interacted with entrepreneurs for one-on-one time. That was a hoped outcome, and that seemed to be the case.”
Two panels on the program were designed to raise awareness about the opportunities for entrepreneurs to get training and technical assistance through various government programs. There was also a panel on micro-loan funding for entrepreneurs.
“Then we actually had a panel of entrepreneurs who have chosen to build themselves in the Delta and stay in the Delta,” Hale said. “So we had everything from presentations on training and tech assistance, to funding opportunities, to a real world glimpse of what it is like to be an entrepreneur.”
Keynote speaker Jim Clinton, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, discussed the link between rural prosperity and rural innovation or entrepreneurship. Clinton pointed out that of the Fortune 500 companies, 80% grew up out of entrepreneur opportunities. Only 20% were what would traditionally be thought of as old money.
The Southern Growth Policies Board recommends closing the gap in economic performance between the rural South and the nation by managing economic development activities along regional lines, without regard to traditional or state boundaries.
It also recommends viewing economic development as an integrated enterprise of both traditional business expansion and recruitment, and the community capacity-building activities that enhance both the ability to perform economically and the quality of life in communities.
“Our hope is that the Mississippi Delta builds wealth and opportunity for its citizens though entrepreneurship and innovation,” Clinton said. “We believe that is possible to create an environment where companies will start up and grow in the Delta, companies that can provide a sound business backbone for economic prosperity.”
Clinton said to create that kind of business environment will require that economic development be managed as a set of interrelated activities that — directly and indirectly — create, expand and recruit businesses. It will require that economic development be managed on a regional basis without regard to traditional political boundaries.
The interrelated activities must include a commitment to lifelong learning, to the full spectrum of education institutions and processes that will facilitate the region’s competitiveness in a knowledge-driven economy.
“Southern Growth has said, ‘…a region’s performance in the knowledge economy can rise no higher than the sum of the knowledge of its people’,” Clinton said. “For this reason, the long-term economic prosperity of the Delta will be directly related to the region’s performance in education and training.”
This was the first Delta Business and Entrepreneurial Symposium, but it won’t be the last.
“We want to continue the dialogue and efforts in creating a network between entrepreneurs and those providing assistance,” Hale said. “There hasn’t really been a forum for that. We feel like the symposium provided a catalyst for that. We see ourselves doing this again next year.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.