A plan for uplift in the depressed Delta

Government and private sector look to revive area along the Mississippi- one of the US's least developed regions.

Boarded storefronts haunt Eudora. As cars zip by on Highway 65 heading south to Louisiana, passersby see a shadow of a town in this area of southern Arkansas. The only sign of economic life: the local catfish plant.

Eudora's bleakness is a common sight in the lower Mississippi Delta, an area of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas with immense poverty and unemployment - the Appalachia of the Deep South.

"It's a third-world country down here," says Kim Laney, who inherited the Pines Motel after her mother's death. "We have little business here. People born and raised here stay if they don't have the will to get out. Most don't."

That may be changing.

Nonprofit organizations and state agencies hope to transform the threadbare region in what will be a test of rural renewal in post-Great Society America.

Unlike the huge government effort to resurrect Appalachia in the 1960s, this one will involve more small-scale public programs - and a heavy dose of private money. Indeed, billionaire Bill Gates recently pledged $2 million for computer hardware to connect impoverished areas of Arkansas - including Eudora - to the Internet. The money will enable some libraries to buy their first computers.

His move comes in the wake of other private projects - including a $26-million Mid-South Delta Initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "Organizations like the Kellogg Foundation will have a significant impact," says John Fluker, project director of the Mid-South Delta Consortium, another Kellogg project.

One of the least developed regions

No one minimizes how difficult it will be to revive a region needing as much help as parts of Africa. Once thriving farmland, this area hugging the Mississippi River through parts of three states is now one of the country's least developed regions. The economic and technology boom of the 1990s bypassed the area. It lacks good housing. Welfare reform hasn't worked.

"The Delta was never a paradise," says Jeannie Whayne, chairwoman of the Department of History at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "You have a classic case of a region depending on agriculture that went from labor intensive to mechanical in the 1940s. It has never quite turned around."

Dr. Whayne, a specialist on the Delta, says agriculture created a society of haves (rich landowners) and have-nots (poor African-Americans) with little room for a middle class. "Capitalism does not function well in that environment," she says.

The region is unusual demographically. More than 800,000 people are shoehorned into the Arkansas portion of the Mississippi Delta - 61 percent of the state's total population. Nineteen percent are African-Americans, whereas 12 percent of the overall US is black.

Portrait of the Delta

Many of the statistics are also bleak:

In 55 counties in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the average family income is less than 80 percent of the national average.

At least 20 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level.

Unemployment in many counties exceeds the national rate by 50 percent.

In Mississippi County, 35.5 percent of all children live in poverty while 40 percent of all residents lack a high school diploma. Fifteen percent of youths between ages 16 and 19 have dropped out of school.

"The Delta isn't sexy stuff," says Elgin Clemins, with the Enterprise Corp. of the Delta in Jackson, Miss. "Industry doesn't locate there, and the people ... have a hard time starting new businesses because they can't get loans without collateral."

Eudora in Chicot County typifies the plight of many Delta towns.

The vast cotton, soybean, and rice fields dotting the landscape account for about 90 percent of the income in the county.

Mechanization created unemployment for many farm workers, few of whom left the region to find jobs elsewhere. Nor have industries have moved in to fill the void.

Politicians frequently pledge help, but little happens. Commissions and organizations form and disband, always offering aid, but it's usually not steady. Delta residents find the sporadic help frustrating.

"It's hard to get funding if you have a nonprofit outfit," says Calvin King, executive director of Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corp. in Fargo. "People have come to help in the past, but the bottom line is the Delta is still poor."

Cotton, once king here, is not likely to be again because of the high-tech nature of agribusiness today.

While the area will always be agricultural based, experts like Whayne say the real road out of poverty should be education and training.

Barbara Pardue, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, agrees the answer lies within - empowering the people of the region.

"Things are happening in the Delta," says Ms. Pardue. "Industry is continuously looking at the area. You can't just give people a ticket out of poverty. You have to give them something to build on for the future."

Industry moves in

In the last 10 years, Nucor Steel opened two plants in Mississippi County, producing $1.2 billion a year in products. State and federally funded computer networks are also in place to introduce children of the region to new frontiers.

Southern Development Bancorporation, a holding company based in Mississippi, recently announced it will focus on the Delta. The corporation's shareholders have agreed to invest in a company whose primary purpose is to develop distressed rural communities.

"The Delta still has miles to go before it sleeps peacefully," says Sybil Hampton, executive director of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds economic and social welfare initiatives. "You have to have optimism, and if more groups have a dedication to the region, the Delta will eventually prosper."

Even with all the dreams, some are not counting on a sudden turnaround.

"I always wondered, if I had extra money to give to charity, what I would do with it," says Ms. Laney, standing behind the check-in counter of the Pines. "It's clear to me now. The Delta is a place that desperately needs all it can get for years and years to come. Every little bit will help."

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