By NASH NUNNERY
Author David Cohn once wrote that “the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”
If Cohn’s description is indeed true, then the Delta Council might be considered the storied region’s heartbeat.
Based in Washington County, Delta Council is the area’s foremost economic development group representing 18 northwest Mississippi counties. Founded after the infamous Great Flood of 1927 and in the midst of a depression, the Delta Council remains one of Mississippi’s most influential organizations. The scope of its influence has included agriculture, ag-research, economic development, industry, flood control, transportation, health, education and forestry.
Harry Simmons serves as current Delta Council president. He says the 82-year old organization plays a vital role in all things Mississippi Delta.
“Delta Council has addressed the important issues that arise concerning agriculture and economic development for over 80 years,” said Simmons, who is the chief executive officer for Simmons Farm Raised Catfish, Inc. “(Council executive vice president) Chip Morgan, the vice-presidents and the committees have done a great job in leading and getting the job done.”
Delta Council presidents serve only one year and are appointed each May at the group’s annual meeting on the Delta State University campus. This year’s meeting is May 29. Many compare the one-day meeting to other Mississippi political gatherings, including the Neshoba County Fair. The crowd is usually a cross-section of Mississippi agricultural and business leadership, mayors, senators, representatives, farm laborers, students and the curious.
One of the Delta Council’s annual meeting traditions is the fashion show. Most men and women who attend the affair are decked out sporting the latest fashions made of cotton. Winners of the “best dressed” contest are selected and announced during the program.
Afterwards, the crowd assembles on DSU’s plush quadrangle lawn for a catfish lunch with all the trimmings, regardless of rain, heat or humidity.
“The annual meeting is mainly a report on what happened with Delta Council and recognition of various entities,” said Simmons. “There always seems to be a main topic of conversation, and last year it was the presidential election.”
He’s hopeful that the surprise election of President Donald Trump will be beneficial to the region but Simmons is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“I think the potential is there for some good things,” he said. “But the political process can be very complex, as I’ve seen during my tenure as Delta Council president.”
During his year as president, Simmons said Delta Council has addressed a number of issues facing the region, including flood control, USDA inspections of catfish, and the push for a fuel tax to fund road and bridge maintenance.
“We support a tax increase for road and bridge repair in the state,” he said. “It’s one of the bigger issues we face in the Delta. It’s very important that farmers and businesses have access to good roads and bridges to transport their products.”
Another huge initiative introduced on Simmons’ watch is “Delta Strong”, a multi-faceted recruiting and marketing plan designed to bring manufacturing back to the Flatlands. The plan calls for a sales team to call on small factory operations in northern industrial cities, detail what the Delta offers and entice them to move.
Before 1994, there were about 45,000 manufacturing jobs in the Mississippi Delta. Today, less than 20,000 remain.
“The ultimate goal is to make the Delta more competitive in attracting new business.” Simmons said.