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Pete Johnson asserts change essential for communities to survive

Pete Johnson, co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), is blunt about the major adaptations needed by Delta communities if they are going to survive. The old model of basing economic development on providing land and buildings, plus 10-year tax breaks, to manufacturers no longer work in today’s economy.

“That lasted for a while until these manufacturers found cheaper labor,” Johnson said. “A lot of people probably think the U.S. outsources more of its work, more jobs, than any other nation. But the nation that outsources more jobs than any other nation on earth is China. You know where they are going? Indonesia and Vietnam. Those people are working for cents on the hour, less than a dollar an hour. We can’t compete with that economic development model.”

More than important

Johnson said change is not just important any more. It is essential to survival.

“So that is what I mean by we have to rethink the Delta,” he said.

The DRA covers 240 counties and parishes in parts of eight states. Only 10 of those counties and parishes are not defined as economically distressed.

In Mississippi, the larger cities are faring the best in the region. Viking Range in Greenwood, for example, has a huge impact on the economy. Cleveland is fortunate that it has Delta State University. Greenville is having some success in securing small manufacturing employers.

“But that is pretty much the extent of it,” Johnson said. “The old model of tax credits and having a building to attract an industry no longer works. As you drive through the Delta, you see a lot of small manufacturing buildings that are vacant. Now that Memphis International Airport has extended runways for the huge 380 Airbus so there is non-stop service from Singapore to Memphis moving goods, it changes that whole dynamic. It has become cheaper to move these goods. By reducing transportation costs, manufacturers can go where labor is the cheapest.”

On the move for money

Johnson said another dynamic that is vitally important is national population trends. The Census Bureau has reported by 2011 the U.S. will have more jobs available than people to fill them. The U.S. is expected to create approximately 1.5 million jobs per year but by 2011, there will be only .45 million people to fill those jobs. Each year, the deficit in workers is projected to get worse until it bottoms out in 2020 when only 350,000 to 375,000 are expected to be available to fill the 1.5 million jobs created.

“What does that tell you?” Johnson said. “That tells you these people who are employable are going to be in great demand. They can move and live wherever they want to because employers are going to have to pay them a premium. Money and salary will not be the only motivators. They are going to look at the quality of place as well as the quality of life.”

Tomorrow’s workers are going to want to live in a place that has good education including higher education opportunities, after-hours entertainment and recreational activities like hunting, skiing, fishing and boating. And they will want access to high-speed Internet.

“They want to make sure they have good schools for their children and good healthcare facilities,” Johnson said. “And the communities that do not provide those things will not only not attract these highly talented workers, but they are going to lose the children who are coming out of their schools. Their populations will continue to decline and they will eventually become extinct.”

But the people of the Delta have proven again and again that they are up to the challenge of change. Challenges the region has faced include the Great Flood of 1927, the Depression, World War II, mechanization of agriculture that put many people out of work, the Civil Rights days that divided so many of the communities and today’s technological challenges.

Rising to the challenges

“I’m confident once the people of the Delta realize what they must do, they will rise to the challenge,” Johnson said. “So, it is incumbent on us in leadership positions to make them aware of what is going on so that they can prepare for the future. Doing nothing will signal doom. The people of the Delta are not do-nothing people. They are innovative. They are imaginative. They are hard working people.”

Johnson said the first thing that must be understood is that public schools are failing to produce a competitive workforce. He said it isn’t students that should be blamed, or teachers.

“It is the administration,” he said. “It is the system. We need to stop blaming the children and blaming the teachers, and change the system. The current system is a monopoly, and in those counties that have weak schools system the monopolies are controlled by people more interested in promoting themselves, their friends and relatives than they are in educating children. But yet, they will try to blame poor performance of their schools on the children.”

But education is just one component. If children are well educated, but communities don’t provide the other things they need like jobs, good healthcare, recreational opportunities and an overall good quality of life, they will leave.

“If communities don’t provide all those other things, then current businesses will not expand,” Johnson said. “They will continue to shrivel up. Nor will you be attracting any new businesses. In a pie chart, education would have largest piece of pie, but it is not the only piece of pie. It is those other pieces that are critical to the development of each of those communities and to this region if it is to stop this freefall in loss of population. And we are in a freefall right now. There is a way to do it. But the leadership must first recognize we are in a freefall.”

Coahoma County, whose largest town is Clarksdale, lost 24% of the population from 1970 to 2000. Of the 45 Mississippi counties in the DRA region, population grew by only 18% in that 30-year period while the U.S. population grew by 38% and Mississippi’s population grew by 28%. Sixteen counties lost population, and half of those losses were in Bolivar, Coahoma and Washington counties.

“These losses are significant because the ripple effect of that declining population is a shrinking tax base, which means these cities and towns are not able to maintain the service that they have been able to maintain in the past,” Johnson said. “So, you get a snowball effect.”

Change threatens a lot of people, and it is difficult for people to change. But what the DRA is telling Delta communities that if they don’t change, population will continue to decline.

“And you are going to die,” Johnson said. “That is just the cold hard reality.”

Change isn’t as difficult as some people think. One success program is using the J-1 Visa waiver program to attract doctors to the Delta. Approximately 80 physicians have been attracted to rural Delta towns with the program that is important because it helps to strengthen the health care environment.

Broadband access is also vital. With modern technology, businesses can be operated just about anywhere there is high speed Internet services. Younger people especially expect to have broadband.

And to attract people, more learning opportunities must be available whether through community colleges or the Internet. Communities also need to encourage institutional support for entrepreneurs with physical facilities, technical support from professors and business people and world access to markets from the Internet.

“Another thing we have to do in these communities is when the sun goes down, these Generation X and Y, and their children coming along, will want something to do,” Johnson said. “Is there a movie to go to? A place to go to play sports? Soccer? Tennis? Communities have to realize that. If the streets roll up after hours, then you have a problem.

“The town has to be easy to get around in. It needs to be a user-friendly community, one that has vitality where you see people exercising by riding bicycles, jogging and playing games. There should be bicycle paths and jogging trails.

“And, interestingly enough, studies have shown the younger generations want to live in communities and be around people who don’t look alike and act alike. They want diversity and inclusion. Communities need to recognize and embrace diversity.

“We have a wonderful diverse culture to embrace in our community, and we need to do that. But doing these things requires thinking differently and changing the way you have been doing things. If we fail to recognize and embrace the change, then we won’t survive this transition. So we have to recognize it and embrace it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.


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