On Thursday, April 7th, I had the privilege of attending a conference titled “The Arkansas Delta: Why It Still Matters.” The event was hosted in Pine Bluff and was sponsored by Simmons Bank. A special thanks is due to Rex Nelson, Director of Corporate Communications for Simmons Bank Corporation and former Alternate Federal Co-Chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, who was the visionary of the event. At the day-long conference, state and national political officials, experts in economics, education, agriculture, healthcare, and business development came together to discuss our region and its advantages and challenges in a changing world.
Southeast Arkansas is a global leader in agricultural production. The region offers businesses an attractive mix of low taxes, workforce, rich natural resources, and even richer cultural heritage. However, largely due to the mechanization of farming, the Delta region has long suffered significant losses of population and jobs. Additionally, we rank low in educational attainment, and our people suffer from higher than average rates of heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease—all factors compounded by a scarcity of healthcare professionals in the region. These topics were among those discussed at this constructive conference.
I won’t bog you down with the details here, but I walked away that Thursday afternoon optimistic and convinced the challenges we face in this region—while serious—will be met head on with solutions from innovative, passionate, and capable people—us. You see, what most impressed me about the gathering, and there was much by which to be impressed, was that leaders from all over the Arkansas Delta region came together to consider what the people in the area are currently doing, and must do in the future, to attract the jobs and improve the overall quality of life that we seek. The challenges the region faces are not insurmountable and the fact that a few hundred busy folks spent a day in Pine Bluff to consider the serious business of how to improve the region in which they work and live gives me a great amount of confidence in the Arkansas Delta’s future.
Of the information gleaned from the conference, a couple things stood out to me. There are many bright spots currently in the Arkansas Delta that can be spread to other towns in the region. For example, tourism is on the rise and agricultural analysts are downright bullish when it comes to the region’s ability to produce for expanding and emerging markets. Overall health trends—while there is considerable work to be done—have been improving as more Arkansans have access to health insurance. Finally, I sensed a sincere willingness from those in attendance of the conference to consider new ideas and to be flexible when considering new policies concerning the Delta.
The Delta region’s strength is its people and their ability to adapt while holding true to what makes them, and the region, unique.
John C. Davis is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and writes a regular column for Southeast Arkansas media outlets.