Many of the state’s top political leaders – and those aspiring for office – are taking part in a conference considering the best ways to revive the poverty-stricken Delta region.
The two-day Delta Grassroots Caucus started Thursday night with participants hearing from the Republican candidates for Arkansas governor, a freshman congressman and former President Bill Clinton.
“For the first time, literally in a generation, the larger demographic and other forces that are working on the world will help the Delta region,” Clinton said.
But he told the opening session meeting at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock that it will take many entities working together.
“There’s never going to be enough government money to take a poor region of America out of the dumps all by itself. You’ve got to have private sector growth. Number two, in order to have private sector growth, you’ve got to have good government policy. You have to have government and the private sector, and increasingly all these great foundations in Arkansas working together,” Clinton said.
The two Republicans who have so far announced their candidacies for governor spoke about their visions for spurring growth in the Delta and the best ways to bring about economic development.
Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman expressed his hesitation for projects like the Big River Steel mill in Osceola, which this year's session of the Arkansas Legislature approved $125 million in state incentives to bring to the state.
Coleman said he believes there are better approaches.
“Let’s development partnerships with our communities, provide the necessary seed capital for those new companies to start and thrive,” Coleman said.
“I believe our state will be so much stronger if we see 125 or a 150 new companies start up every year instead of one new super project once every generation. Just imagine for a moment what could be done if a 125 new companies started by 125 young Delta entrepreneurs had just one million dollars each in seed capital to get started.”
But his opponent for the nomination, former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, said “We have to continue to look at the expansion of jobs. And yes, I did support the Big River Steel project in Osceola,” he said to a spattering of applause.
“I did because whether you’re from western Arkansas, southern or eastern Arkansas, we have to be able to invest in those big projects. When you do your due diligence and have the opportunity to create $75,000 a year jobs, over 600 I believe it is, that qualifies for the large project, passed by the Legislature, due diligence done, I think it’s an appropriate investment,” Hutchinson said.
On Friday, the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates who have announced at this point, former Lt. Governor Bill Halter and former Congressman Mike Ross, will share their thoughts with the group.
Also speaking Thursday night was fourth district Congressman Tom Cotton, who argued deregulation would be key in helping rural communities.
He touted legislation introduced by first district Congressman Rick Crawford called the FUELS Act.
“It would exempt farmers from various spill control and clean up requirements if they have small tanks that are fewer than 10,000 gallons or on an entire farm of fewer than 42,000 gallons,” Cotton said. “The University of Arkansas estimates that this bill alone could save almost $3.4 billion for America’s farmers.”
Also slated to speak on Friday are Gov. Mike Beebe, Senators Mark Pryor and John Boozman and Congressman Crawford.