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Delta Bridge Project seeks lasting change

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

(Photo)
Joe Black of Southern Bancorp's Delta Bridge Project spoke last week at the regular meeting of Mississippi County mayors about the project's plans for the area.

Giving a little more detail and insight into the project's plans than in previous meetings, Black said the project organizer have been studying Mississippi County for the past three months, and have decided to initiate the first phase of improvement, if community members were willing to engage with them.

The project, which works to build lasting improvements in Delta communities, is based on five "pillars of development" -- education, housing, leadership development, health care and economic development. Black told the group that in previous communities, the project has affected a noticeable turnaround. In Phillips county, Delta Bridge developed a bio-diesel plant, built new housing and created a Boys and Girls Club that now serves more than 500 kids. Black added that because of the number of kids served, that county's teen pregnancy rates have dropped and school performance has gone up.

"Once we come into a community," he said, "we don't want to see small 'pet' projects. We are here to transform."

The first phase of the project for Mississippi County, nine to 12 months of strategic planning, will begin in July. A community-wide kick off meeting will be held, and then Black said he plans to form a steering committee which will participate in and help guide studies done on the population to determine what sort of improvements are needed.

Black said the prospects for Mississippi County are exciting, because the area is starting off at an advantage.

"In this community, you have it better than you think," he said. "You have good municipal and county government. You have the capacity to be the envy of other communities -- a significant industrial presence and dense population, by Arkansas standards. Blytheville and Osceola both have very successful chamber of commerce organizations, your school systems have been improving for the last three years, and you have mayors who will meet and talk to each other. In addition to that, this area seems to have one of the more energized faith-based markets that I've seen."

The project's main investments will be made in Blytheville and Osceola, where a focus will likely be projects to improve quality of life. Black acknowledged that the area has no shortage of jobs, but needs work in making its communities more liveable and attractive for people who may move here to work.

"Blytheville has much more economic activity than any other market we've worked in," he said. "We need to make Mississippi County a place where people can live. Jobs are here, now we just need to improve quality of life."

The Delta Bridge Project, once initiated, is normally committed to a community for a period of 15 years, but Black said he thought positive and lasting change could be affected in Mississippi County in 10 years or less.

"It takes that long," he said. "You can't change multi-generational issues with a three-year program. The planning process alone will take nine to 12 months, and we are aiming for input from around 800 community members, so everyone will need to be patient and help us focus on identifying good programs."

A kickoff meeting to which all community members will be invited is planned for July, and Black said that more details will be announced at a later time. Some information on the project's work in Phillips County can be seen at deltabridgeproject.com.

sharris@couriernews.net

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