Helena-West Helena - Homegrown Tools

Helena-West Helena, AR

Updated: 2022

Severe economic decline leads civic leaders from two small communities in the Mississippi Delta to set aside historic rivalries and work together to save their towns. This story is about an inclusive community-wide planning and implementation process to bridge economic development, housing, education, leadership development and health care.

Median Household Income2020$23,483
Poverty Rate 202039.3%
Proximity to Urban Center 65 miles from Memphis, Tenn.
Proximity to Interstate Highway 50 miles
Case Study Time Frame 2003-2006
Municipal Budget FY20217.9 million
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
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Once thriving with agricultural trade and industrial production, small towns in the Mississippi Delta have since become some of the poorest and most disinvested places in the country. Helena-West Helena in Phillips County is no exception. With a 30 percent poverty rate and a rapidly declining population, this small town has mostly been left behind by the nation’s economic transition.


According to Joe Black, a bank vice president in Helena, “In 2003, Phillips County hit the bottom.” In response to hitting the bottom, the community in and around Helena came together to initiate the Delta Bridge project. Delta Bridge brings all organizations working on community and economic development projects in Phillips County under a single umbrella. It integrates local development efforts with state, regional and national programs for the Delta and involves substantial contribution from residents of rural Phillips County communities. The strategic plan for Phillips County, which was completed in 2003 and serves as the blueprint for Delta Bridge, includes workable plans of action in the five fundamental pillars of community life: economic development, housing, education, leadership development and health care.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Short-term success can build long-term momentum. It was important, from the beginning, that Delta Bridge not be perceived as just another effort to “save the Delta.” Nor was it a just another strategic plan that would sit on the shelf. To maintain buy-in from the community, the process needed to demonstrate success quickly. For this reason, the goal teams first tackled action steps that could be accomplished in short order and for which there was already some momentum. Once people started seeing change happen, they had more of an incentive to join in the process.


Look for opportunity in adversity. People are more willing to change long-held behaviors and beliefs under conditions of hardship and adversity. Not only might new leaders come forward, but “worker bees” are typically more willing to participate in projects when they, or their friends and neighbors, are struggling. Hard times should be viewed as an opportunity to mobilize a community by focusing on what can be done to turn things around, as opposed to what is wrong. “Delta Bridge led to the realization that people can control their own destiny and that a poor person’s fate is not predetermined,” one resident said. This shift in the perception of local residents would not have been likely without widespread adversity.


Community planning must be an inclusive process. The value of a community strategic plan or vision document depends entirely on the extent to which a truly representative sample of the community is involved in creating the plan. Plans that are created by a subset of any community are destined to affect only the subset involved in its creation. Given Helena’s history of racial strife, leadership at Southern knew that the Delta Bridge planning process had to be inclusive and that making it so would require a long and intensive effort. In fact, it took 18 months and over 500 meetings to create the plan. Southern invested a tremendous amount of staff time toward bringing every constituency to the table, including black, white, young, old, newcomers and old-timers.


Get the right people involved from the beginning. “From the outset, Southern was very deliberate in terms of bringing respected members of the community into the process,” said Paula Oliver, the Helena Main Street director. During the initial asset-mapping process, the informal leadership structure in and around Phillips County was identified and sought out. Informal leaders included school teachers, retired elected officials, pastors, frequent community volunteers and small business owners. Bringing all the respected leaders into the process early can help minimize community resistance when the going gets tough.


Solicit support from high-level politicians and leaders. When a community comes together and mobilizes, as Helena has, leaders should not shy away from seeking support from high-level public authorities. When governors or representatives in Congress learn about a community in their district undertaking radical reform, they can help bring additional resources to the effort. Recognition and support for the Delta Bridge project has come from U.S. senators and congressional representatives from Arkansas, the president of the state’s university system, the governor of Arkansas and others. This support may parlay into additional resources for the Delta region. With the strategy developed by and firmly rooted in the local community, reaching out to tap regional, state and even national resources is likely to bring new partners to the table rather than create dependency on outside resources.