ByStephen P. Greene
Greenville, Miss., wants to build bridges—the kind that people drive over and the kind that drive people closer together. This city on the Mississippi River hopes that these new connections will make its economic future as fertile as the surrounding Delta soil.
Located in one of the poorest areas of the country, Greenville has seen much of the nation prosper in recent years. While the party raged on in other places, Greenville experienced little of the boom. The area, nevertheless, has managed to endure. A diverse mix of industries—manufacturing, agriculture, retail and medical services—has helped to keep the local economy in check.
"We don't have real strong swings one way or another in economic activity," says Tommy Hart, director of the Economic Development District of Washington County.
Hart and other local officials believe that Greenville has a few hurdles to overcome before reaching its potential. Among these challenges are: constructing two new bridges across the Mississippi River, and achieving unity among local economic development agencies and among the residents themselves to improve racial relations.
The Highway 82 bridge that connects Greenville to Lake Village, Ark., is, in the words of Greenville Mayor Paul Artman, "kind of scary to cross. It's a functionally obsolete two-lane bridge and the most hit bridge on the Mississippi River."
By "hit," Artman is referring to the roughly 50 barges that have crashed into the bridge over the past three decades. The curvature of the river near the bridge has led to these occasional navigational difficulties, which, in turn, have resulted in damage to the bridge. Congress has appropriated money for the first phase of a new four-lane bridge about 3,000 feet south of the current one. Artman says the new bridge should be completed by 2006.
"Creating a safer daily crossing will allow our markets to expand," says Hart. "The other side of the river is very important to us. Many residents on both sides cross that bridge each day to go work. We can't let that river become a wall."
A much more ambitious addition to the area's inadequate road network is in the early planning stages and probably is at least 10 years away from fruition. More national in scope, this project calls for stretching Interstate 69, which currently runs from Canada to Indiana, all the way to Mexico. At a still unspecified location north of Greenville, a bridge would be needed to span the "NAFTA Highway" across the river.
Hart says this project is sorely needed because Greenville is one of only three cities in the nation that has a population of at least 50,000 and no direct interstate access. (About 65,000 people live in Washington County.)
In June of 1999, Greenville hosted its first Regional Developers' Showcase. The agenda was filled with seminars, industrial tours, site visits and quality of life presentations. Although business prospects did emerge from the event, the real success was the cooperative environment that made it possible to begin with. Artman says that fragmentation has historically been a problem among the area's development agencies, but the showcase brought together 16 entities, including the Economic Development District, Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau and local utility companies. A second showcase is planned for October. In addition, the main city and county development agencies now hold quarterly meetings to discuss how to work together on projects.
A more complicated and ingrained type of fragmentation in Greenville concerns race relations. According to the most recent Census Bureau statistics, blacks make up just under 60 percent of the population in Greenville; whites, slightly more than 40 percent. Despite these numbers, the concentration of wealth in Greenville lies with a small percentage of whites, whereas most black residents face an opposite set of circumstances.
"To some extent, racism is still alive here," says Harry Bowie, president of the Delta Foundation, a community development foundation based in Greenville that operates several for-profit businesses in the region and also provides loans for low-income minority clients. The organization has created more than 6,000 jobs in the area since 1980.
Even though most outward examples of discrimination have been relegated to the history books, Bowie says that subtle forms may still have a hold on the region.
"I think that most bankers do try to be fair, but there are still vestiges of discrimination that occur in the access to capital," Bowie says. "How conscious it is, I don't know. I'm not trying to judge individuals because I know many of them, and they are very good and decent people."
Mayor Artman says that racial discrimination must be overcome in order for Greenville to make real progress. "We are attempting to tackle that problem by being very open and honest about it," he says. "There is a problem, we recognize it, and we are trying to solve it."
A related problem is the existence of what Artman calls "a dual school system." Minorities overwhelmingly make up the city's low-rated public schools, while white children predominantly attend the private schools. Artman says that the racial conditions and school system quality are two factors that Greenville must defend itself against when trying to attract new businesses.
One step the mayor has taken to confront the racial problem is to hold monthly harmony luncheons at the Salvation Army. A free lunch is served, and all residents are encouraged to attend and discuss issues that still divide those in the area.
A cooperative approach is also being used to bring higher education to Greenville. Currently, the closest community college to Greenville is 25 minutes away, and the nearest four-year university is 45 minutes away. But a new Higher Education Center is almost completed in the south part of town. Three schools—Mississippi Valley State University, Delta State University and Mississippi Delta Community College—will offer courses in the building. Students will be able to earn two-year, four-year and graduate degrees, as well as partake in job training programs and continuing education classes.
What has allowed Greenville and nearby towns to survive for many decades is still a vital part of the local economy today—the land. The area is a major producer of cotton, soybean, rice, corn and catfish, which has risen to be the No. 2 crop—after cotton—thanks to technological advances in aquaculture.
"Even though some people tend to discount it, agriculture still has a large impact on this area," says Joyce Franklin, vice president of The Jefferson Bank, which specializes in farm loans. "Of course, the number of people that farms employ has been cut down because of mechanization."
Greenville also is the state's largest river port. This industry was hit hard in the 1980s because of the grain embargo against the former Soviet Union, and the action had a lasting effect on the town. Still, the river remains vital to the local economy, with about 250,000 tons of cargo shipped out of the port annually.
Other key industries affecting the economy include:
Greenville has many bridges to build in the coming years. Some will be completed faster than others; some will require the power of the mind rather than the power of machines to construct. Thanks to a diverse economic base and the willingness to admit the need for improvement, residents of Greenville can at least start building from a solid foundation.
|Per Capita Personal Income||$16,720|
|Top Five Employers|
|Greenville Public School District||
|Fruit of the Loom||
|Farm Fresh Catfish||550|