Published 5:13 am Monday, August 6, 2007
Group updates landmark strategy
The board of the Delta Regional Authority gathered in Alabama last month to complete work on what we believe is a landmark update of our strategic plan for the region. We serve 240 counties and parishes in parts of eight states. Only 10 of those counties and parishes are not defined as economically distressed. The suffering the nation witnessed in New Orleans two years ago following Hurricane Katrina isn't limited to that city. The acute poverty extends up both sides of the Mississippi River into southern Illinois and east through the Black Belt of Alabama. We have the nation's highest concentration of poor people even though they live on the richest soil. Education and income levels continue to be well below the national average despite the billions of federal dollars poured into the region.
Clearly, traditional economic development strategies are no longer working in our region. Economic development programs that encourage communities to offer cheap land, buildings and labor are no longer effective in the knowledge-based economy of this century. We've also come to the realization that the Delta's problems can't be solved simply by spending more government money on the same programs.
At the start of our board's planning session, we had to ask ourselves why income growth in the region has fallen so far behind the rest of the country, especially since the late 1990s. We determined that a major reason is the Delta's continuing dependence on a declining industrial and agricultural base. While much of the rest of the nation has made the transition to information technology and a growing professional service sector, the Delta has adhered to a failing economic model. This has forced our most educated people to leave the region. Meanwhile, far too many of those residents left behind lack access to the resources needed to become competitive. As the nation moves forward, dozens of Delta communities fall further into decline and the population grows increasingly dependent on public assistance.
In order to be an effective federal-state partnership, the DRA's mission can't be limited to attempts to reduce unemployment and poverty in dying communities. We must instead concentrate on developing the assets needed to sustain long-term growth. Not all communities are in a position to benefit from this approach. But all Delta communities will benefit from rethinking their priorities. We hope to reward those projects that have a proven relationship to future employment growth. This approach opens the door to a new way of thinking about community development and vitality. It also links directly to the expectation of the president and Congress that the DRA will make employment growth the key measure of economic success.
Pete Johnson of Clarksdale, Miss., is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. He was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2001.