Group plans to move Louisiana Delta to prosperity

Mary Ann Van Osdell, Barnes, James  |  4/4/2009 12:42:29 AM

News Release Distributed 04/03/09

RAYVILLE, La. – Organizing symposiums and identifying best practices in four areas that affect poverty are part of an action plan the Louisiana Delta Initiative presented to community and governmental leaders here April 2.

Committees will focus on education, health care, jobs and entrepreneurship, and infrastructure/ broadband connectivity and how to improve access to these issues, organizers said.

The LSU AgCenter and Southern University Ag Centers have led the development of the organization in collaboration with economic development groups in the region.

The group was formed to act on state Sen. Francis Thompson’s 2007 legislation that called for regional economic development to occur in northeast Louisiana, where one in four people live in poverty, said Dr. James Barnes, director of the LSU AgCenter's Delta Rural Development Center.

“Poverty is our No. 1 enemy,” Barnes told the 129 in attendance.

Barnes selected a team of community and economic development professionals to address poverty issues in 12 parishes – Caldwell, Catahoula, Concordia, East Carroll, Franklin, Madison, Morehouse, Ouachita, Pointe Coupee, Richland, Tensas and West Carroll.

After six months, Barnes said, the team is just getting started. “This is not the end,” he stressed.

Thompson said the key to transforming northeast Louisiana is for government, private enterprise and the university system to work together.

“What a great resource that we have in charge of this process – two great land-grant universities,” Thompson said.

“Just because people live in rural areas, they shouldn’t sacrifice health care, education or job opportunities,” Thompson said. “There are fewer and fewer hospital practitioners. I doubt we have a surgeon from here to the Mississippi River.”

The health-care initiatives include creating a directory of resources, conducting research to improve recruitment of professionals and health services and researching the feasibility of mobile units to provide dental services to children at schools year-round, said Heather Smoak-Urena, executive director of the Kisatchie-Delta Regional Planning and Development District.

“What we really want to do is improve how we live,” Smoak-Urena said.

Jobs and entrepreneurship goals include identifying at least one industrial site in each parish, performing an assessment and based on the findings of the assessment, assisting in seeking funding for the site to be certified, said Miriam Russell, northeast regional director of Louisiana Economic Development.

She listed other goals as taking an inventory of additional sites and available buildings suitable for economic development and managing site data online.

Increasing educational attainment – high school diplomas and General Education Development certificates – is high on the list of education initiatives, said Mary Ann Newton, president of the West Monroe-West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce.

David Creed, executive director of the North Delta Regional Planning and Development District, said improving existing water, sewerage, roads and bridges is important, but infrastructure should include advocating for funding to coordinate deployment of broadband high-speed communication services.

“Broadband would impact all of the fields we discussed,” Creed said.

Millie Atkins, a senior analyst in governmental relations for CenturyTel, said broadband use will not disappear.

“It is very important that the Delta area be not left out of that loop,” she said. People who have broadband in their homes are more likely to take online education classes.

“Now is our time to make a difference in the people, in the lives in this area,” Atkins said. “We have everything we need to help people; it is simply a matter of connecting them to those resources.”

Tana Trichel, president and CEO of the Northeast Louisiana Economic Alliance, told the group, “You cannot do too much economic development.” She said there is a role for everyone.

Mary Ann Van Osdell

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