The growth of the Delta will involve people, businesses and organizations constantly thinking outside the box, the executive director of the East Arkansas Planning and Development District said in a recent Talk Business & Politics interview.
Melissa Rivers, who became the executive director in May 2011, said her group has worked tirelessly on building that opportunity.
“We have four core values here – quality, excellence, customer service with integrity. Also, you have to be able to be straight and transparent with people,” Rivers said. “I have been here four years. We have folks who are committed to the area and the region. We also want to leave it better than we found it.”
The district, made up of 12 counties ranging from Clay and Randolph in the north to Lee, Phillips and St. Francis in the south, was created in the late 1960s through work done by then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. Other counties include: Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Greene, Lawrence, Mississippi, and Poinsett.
The group works on a variety of issues including community and economic development. Rivers said they also help cities and counties with issues like infrastructure and preparing for growth.
The group began strategic planning with the counties in 2011, Rivers, who has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and communications from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said.
The planning sessions looked at several issues including housing and finding acceptable healthy foods in the region.
Rivers said the sessions also uncovered the role that tourism plays in the region’s overall economy.
“Tourism in Eastern Arkansas, it is a half-billion dollar industry in our area,” Rivers said, noting the industry is not often recognized as having a role in the economy. “Dr. Ruth Hawkins (official with the Delta Heritage program at ASU) has done an excellent job. Tourism is a valid economic development (in our area).”
Another key part of the puzzle involves workforce development, Rivers said.
The group has transitioned from having a revolving loan fund program to help businesses to a program that helps to leverage support on potential deals including having a cost-benefit analysis.
“The deal is the tip of the iceberg,” Rivers said. “But you have to have a qualified workforce, housing and other amenities.”
The group is also working on a project to create a data platform to have valuable information on the region for education and economic development.
Rivers cited a key educational statistic in the region as an example to know why.
“We outpace the national numbers on pre-K enrollment, but we lag in post-secondary,” Rivers said. “(The new project) will provide an objective viewpoint and provide data.”
Another key goal is stressing the need for civic and community engagement on issues, Rivers said. The group is also hosting a summit May 28 at ASU to talk about issues facing the Delta.
The group recently put out a 20-page report showing the work that was done by EAPDD during 2014.
There were nearly 450 projects managed by the group last year, with nearly $26 million invested. Nearly three-quarters of the projects involved infrastructure and business development, with the rest involving education and workforce training as well as a healthy communities initiative.
Rivers said education should be a “priority for our region” and that looking at ways to stem population losses is crucial as well.
On population, Rivers said the report noted 10 of the 12 counties in the district have lost population in the past several years but each county has gained population in the 25 to 44 years old demographic.
Another goal is building entrepreneurship and succession planning for businesses among young people, Rivers said.
Rivers said the opportunity is there for growth.
“Our communities have much more to offer than we realize. In our 2013 report, it showed we had $25 million invested in projects, with $13 million in local match. East Arkansas has so much to offer and build upon,” Rivers said. “But we have to think outside the box.”