THE ISSUE: Economic development in the Arkansas delta.THE IMPACT: Ideas for growing the delta region, which could be implemented in the future, were discussed at a conference Friday. For example, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that foreign investors are already interested in Arkansas cotton, resulting in a multi-million dollar economic boost.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson headlined an all-day conference Friday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on the future of the Arkansas Delta. Simmons First National Bank sponsored and organized the conference, titled, “The Arkansas Delta: Why It Still Matters,” which is expected to become an annual event. It featured speakers on subjects including economic development, education, healthcare, transportation and infrastructure, heritage, conservation and quality of life in the region.

Speaking before several hundred attendees while they lunched over catfish, Hutchinson spoke about education, healthcare, agriculture and industrial recruitment. Arkansas, he said, leads the country in foreign direct investment. From one area of China, Shandong Province, the state has recruited three industries. He touched on textile maker Shandong Riyu Technology Group’s recent promise to invest $410 million in a former Sanyo plant in Forrest City. The company intends to spin 200,000 tons of Arkansas cotton into yarn, he said, which could bring as many as 800 jobs.

“That impacts all of the delta,” Hutchinson said. “Cotton might not be king yet, but that’s a step in the right direction.”

Agriculture, the leading industry for both Arkansas and the delta, faces challenges due to technological advances.

“We’ve become more efficient in our production, and that discourages us somewhat because that diminishes the number of people involved in agriculture and in our communities,” Hutchinson said. “Well, you’ve got to embrace the technology… The way you embrace it is to market it worldwide.”

Hutchinson said he had met with government representatives of countries such as China and Cuba about importing Arkansas rice.

“When we do that, prices go up, production goes up, [and] it gives us great strength in our agricultural community,” he said.

The governor touted education initiatives such as insuring every third-grader in the state is reading at grade-level, the Arkansas Futures Grant that promises two years of free higher education for students in high-need fields and offering computer coding classes to every student in the state. He announced a $400,000 program to offer $2,000 stipends to any teacher willing to learn how to teach coding. He also touched on healthcare with the legislature’s Medicaid reform known as AR Works.

“That gives me confidence that we’re going to continue health insurance coverage for those at the poverty level or below, that are working, that are able-bodied, that are trying to get up that economic ladder,” he said.

“We don’t know what they’re gonna do in Washington,” he added. “But I believe we have something in Arkansas that will be complementary to whatever they do. And it’s the right direction for a long-term, sustainable program for healthcare in this state.”

Chris Masingill, Federal Co-Chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, struck an optimistic tone for the DRA and talked up the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative, which Pine Bluff voters will vote on June 13. A proposed budget by President Donald Trump’s administration would strip the DRA of funding, but Masingill said he was thinking positively.

“I know we’re on the list for being eliminated,” Masingill said. “But I’m here to tell you I’m extremely optimistic. We got our ’17 budget last week, and got two million more than we asked for. That’s fantastic. What that does is communicate… how important our role is because we have an important model.”

Masingill also encouraged local attendees to support the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative, which will be voted on June 13.

“If you’re from Pine Bluff, make sure you’ve marked your calendar,” he said. “A very important vote will take place.”

Other speakers during the conference covered a range of topics. Dr. Shane Speights, site dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University, said the area on both sides of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans is the least healthy in the United States. He spoke about efforts to train and keep young doctors in high-need communities throughout the delta. Exposing medical school students to rural communities during school has proven to be an effective way of convincing them to return once they graduate, he said.

Fitz Hill, an administrator at Arkansas Baptist University and a former football coach at the University of Arkansas and elsewhere, spoke about youth development in the delta. He detailed a number of statistics demonstrating societal breakdowns that have made it harder for youth to transition successfully to adulthood. Rates for divorce, teen suicide, drug use and incarceration have skyrocketed since the mid-20th century, he said, and as a result roughly half of minority students drop out of high school.

“Kids need love, food and expectations,” Hill said. “A man with a full stomach ain’t looking to fight. He’s looking to put his feet up somewhere. Trust is built over food.”

He implored the audience to take charge in their communities.

“I need you to wake up, show up and follow up,” he said. “We gonna win then. We got a chance. With young people, get short victories. Get first downs. Inch by inch, life’s a cinch.”

Highway Commissioner Robert Moore spoke about the importance of funding the state’s highways, while three speakers touched in various ways on the impact of tourism on the delta. The speakers were Doug Friedlander, executive director of the Friends of the Historic White River Bridge in Clarendon, Ruth Hawkins, director of the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites program, and Scott Simon, director of the Arkansas chapter of The Nature Conservancy.