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Delta dreaming 

There was a big celebration in Marion last month, when Gov. Huckabee and other elected officials joined the chairman of Hino Motors to break ground for a car parts plant. The jubilation of local residents is understandable, since it's a big deal whenever new jobs arrive in any Delta community, and Marion has been working hard to lure manufacturers to its so-called industrial "super site." But the hard truth is that our state lacks an imaginative long-term economic development strategy, and we need to consider some radical and creative ways to propel one entire half of our state out of poverty. Let's start with some ancient history. Thousands of years ago, a glacier swept down from the north and its forward edge stopped along a line that cuts roughly from Blytheville to Texarkana. That's why we have mountains in the northwest and flatlands in the southeast. In the 1800s, those Delta flatlands were great for farming, and agriculture was the big business of the day. On the other hand, the folks in the mountains could barely scratch out a living from their rocky soil, so they kept a few chickens and stayed poor. Of course, things changed in the 20th century. Manufacturing replaced agriculture as the primary economic engine in the first half of the 1900s, but the Delta didn't adapt. The entire state suffered until the 1960s, when Northwest Arkansas started to benefit from the industries that it initially turned to out of necessity: poultry, retailing, and trucking. Now Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in the world, and a once-impoverished region is reaping the rewards of investments made years ago. With the benefit of hindsight, we realize that the Delta missed the chance to capitalize on the transition from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy. Right now we are in the midst of another revolutionary change, as America moves into the Information Age. So why would we pursue a 100-year-old economic development strategy for the Delta, and thereby perpetuate the exact problems that have plagued its residents for so long? As a result of NAFTA and other free trade agreements, the U.S. continues to lose manufacturing jobs to nations with lower labor costs, so we can't be sure that such jobs will remain here for long. Also, environmental considerations are becoming more important to companies that value public health and quality of life, and heavy manufacturing contributes to pollution. Even further, as the price of oil continues to rise, the pressure to find alternative energy sources will increase. The automobile industry may change dramatically as a result - just when we are begging for car plants. So how about a 21st century strategy for the Delta? It may seem daunting, but the region actually has many assets that could be thoughtfully developed; namely, inexpensive productive land, a central location, good transportation routes, and plenty of two-year colleges (I count 15 on an axis from Blytheville to Mountain View and down to Pine Bluff). We could announce an initiative to attract high-tech and alternative energy companies to the Delta. Starting with a corridor along I-40 from Carlisle to West Memphis, our economic development officials could discuss the area in terms of the following built-in advantages: Cheap property for custom facilities; high visibility on the most heavily trafficked east-west thoroughfare in the nation; and efficient means for transporting goods, including highway, river, and air shipping via the FedEx hub in Memphis. Instead of tax breaks, we could offer more substantive incentives. For instance, the state could commit to assuming the burden of worker training by adding relevant technical courses to community college curricula. That way, if a microchip company is thinking about relocating to the Delta, nearby schools would institute the kind of classes that would train potential workers for jobs there. Our higher education system would benefit from being on the cutting edge of technology, and our population would be better served by getting a relevant, modern education that leads to a decent-paying job. And in the end, isn't that the point of public education? The abundance of land in the Delta is also attractive to companies who want to offer their employees certain quality-of-life advantages. Like Northwest Arkansas, developers could create luxury lifestyle communities at a relatively low cost. Big houses, golf courses, and other amenities could be attached to dying small towns, which would provide a unique authenticity. It would be a short drive to either Little Rock or Memphis for people who don't want to live in a big city but want to enjoy nice restaurants, theater, and professional sports. In short, the Delta could be like SiliconValley or Westchester. It may sound like the stuff of fantasy, but who would have thought that a general store in Rogers would eventually make more money than General Motors? Certainly not the people who think car plants will solve the problems of the Arkansas Delta. Right now our state is operating with one hand tied behind its back, and who knows how far we can go if we harness the promise, talents and assets of the other half?
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