The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Chairman Masingill Statement & U. of West Alabama Billy McFarland's Presentation

Posted on June 05, 2011 at 10:18 AM

June 1, 2011

As part of a continuing series of follow-up messages regarding the May 5-6 Delta conference at the Clinton Presidential Center, we would like to present a message of thanks from Delta Regional Authority Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill, as well as information on the innovative and constructive activities of J. William “Billy” McFarland, Director of the University of West Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Services. Chairman Masingill was the keynote speaker at the opening session in the Clinton School of Public Service, and Billy McFarland gave an excellent presentation on the “big picture” regional economic development panel at the Clinton Presidential Library.

We greatly appreciated Chairman Masingill’s dynamic presentation at the conference and his great leadership at the DRA. We especially appreciate his tireless and dedicated work in coordinating among federal, state and local levels for disaster relief in the aftermath of the devastating flooding and storms that have recently hit our region.

Message of appreciation from Chairman Masingill to the Delta Caucus:

“It was a pleasure to be with you at the Annual Meeting of the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus last week and have a chance to visit about some of the great things in store for the Delta Regional Authority. I really appreciate your commitment to the Caucus and this agency and to the projects in your part of the region.

Looking back over the last couple of weeks, I think about the historic times that our states are experiencing and my thoughts and prayers are with you all and your communities while we transition into this time of recovery and rebuilding.

Please know that the Delta Regional Authority is here to serve each of you as we all carry on our work on behalf of the people who live and work in the Delta region. I hope that we can continue to have an open line of communication, and encourage you to view us as an extension of your efforts.

Please do not hesitate to contact me at (501)772-9686 or by e-mail at or please to reach out to my staff if you ever feel that we can be of assistance to you.”

Chairman Masingill has held meetinhgs in Clarksdale, Mississippi and all over the region regarding relief and recovery from the flooding. Following an aerial survey of flooding in Mississippi’s South Delta, Northeastern Louisiana, and Southeast Arkansas with Peter Nimrod, Chief Engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board, Chairman Masingill expressed his deep appreciation to the National Guard, the levee boards of the Delta region and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for their hard work and preparation for the historic flooding of the Mississippi River and its backwater channels.

Masingill said that currently the mainline Mississippi River levees are performing as designed, protecting thousands of acres and Delta families from potential damage. He thanked Peter Nimrod with the Mississippi Levee Board and the Delta Council for their leadership during this time.

Masingill said the aerial survey was “extremely informative, covering the situation in three states by air and ground. We continue monitoring as flood waters rise and recede and assessments of the extent of the damage to our region’s land and economy begin.”

Information from Billy” McFarland, Director of the University of West Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Services, regarding his university’s activities in promoting economic development in the Alabama Black Belt, which is an important part of the DRA region.

The University of West Alabama is a regional liberal arts university with 2300 traditional students and 2800 online students. It is the largest university–in fact the only four-year university–located in the heart of the Black Belt, which derives its name from the color of the soil in the 15 counties of that area. UWA is a state-supported public institution of higher education, with a majority of its students being African Americans. The Center for Business and Economic Services (CBES), housed in the university’s College of Business, has a mission of providing assistance to facilitate the economic development of the impoverished Black Belt region of the Mississippi Delta.

The Black Belt was once one of the wealthiest areas in the country in the early nineteenth century, but in its recent history became one of the poorest parts of the country. McFarland said the unemployment rate in Greene County, for example, is now 26 percent.

In many areas the functional illiteracy rate is as high as 60 percent, with the average educational level being approximately at the eighth grade level from schools that rank near the bottom in test scores. The Seventh Congressional District is one of the 10 poorest Congressional districts in the country.

McFarland summarized these statistics not to be all gloom and doom, as he said, but just to state the facts of the difficulties we face in the Black Belt. The University of West Alabama has a series of innovative activities that are breaking new ground in approaches to regional economic development, and we believe these policies and changes are the kinds of activities that should provide a brighter future for the region.

In addition to the main campus at Livingston, UWA has recently set up a high technology education center in Demopolis in Marengo County, Alabama. McFarland stressed that in addition to the traditional infrastructure activities, UWA places a great deal of emphasis on workforce development. He said that the Black Belt has had difficulty recruiting new industry into the area, and that unfortunately in some cases when they did move a plant into the area they left after a few years due to the lack of skilled workers.

In addition to the main campus at Livingston, UWA has recently set up a high technology education center in Demopolis in Marengo County, Alabama. McFarland stressed that in addition to the traditional infrastructure activities, UWA places a great deal of emphasis on workforce development. He said that the Black Belt has had difficulty recruiting new industry into the area, and that unfortunately in some cases when they did move a plant into the area they left after a few years due to the lack of skilled workers.

The Demopolis high-tech center focuses on addressing this problem. They have new initiatives, for example, for training welders, commercial truck drivers and other job opportunities. People who obtain these certifications are not only able to provide for their families but are also able to start up small businesses of their own, and of course small business is the most dynamic engine for job creation.

The Demopolis program also provides training for skilled workers like plumbers, electricians, welders, etc., who have never been taught how to run a business, and a new initiative begun a few months ago trains small businesses on the specifics of the day-to-day operations of running a business.

UWA partnered with the DRA, which provided one of the major funding sources for the Demopolis higher education center, a state of the art facility that is head and shoulders above any facilities previously located in the heart of the Black Belt. The UWA facilities at Livingston and Demopolis are excellent examples of providing opportunities for DRA residents in places where they live, rather than outsourcing too many vital activities as has been the case in the past.

In moving forward, McFarland said UWA emphasizes the importance of continually engaging the communities in providing opportunities for betterment, such as in offering entrepreneurship institute resources and seed money for Black Belt entrepreneurs to have the capacity to develop their small businesses–something that has been too often lacking in the past.

UWA is providing technical and vocational training opportunities to one of the poorest regions in the United States. A current grant application, under review by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, would provide for a state-of-the-science training center in the heart of Alabama’s depressed Black Belt region, which is riddled with factory closings, a chronically high unemployment rate, and a low educational attainment factor. This application, which is a consortium comprising The University of West Alabama, Shelton State Community College, the City of Demopolis, and RockTenn, Inc., would provide for training in the following areas:

Robotics, Welding, Machine Tool Technology, Industrial Electronics, Logistical Control, Electricity, and Drafting

As a contingency plan if this grant if not funded: CBES and the Demopolis Higher Education Center will work with Shelton State Community College’s Technical Division to provide CDL/ Truck Driving training, as well as welding training, using existing facility/capacity.

UWA is currently making an effort to establish a criminal justice and law enforcement training institute, so that people do not have to leave the region for the training they need. This institute would provide peace officers training, explosives’ training and many other activities that historically people in the Black Belt would have to make the long trip to Birmingham to get the skills they need. The many ongoing initiatives as well as planned initiatives for the future that UWA is working on are indeed promising and we encourage all our partners to be supportive of and learn from the innovative approaches of one of our region’s major institutions.

Tornado damage in Tuscaloosa: Billy McFarland said the University of West Alabama was spared damage by the recent storms. Billy’s home town is Tuscaloosa and regarding the tornado that devastated that city, he said in early May that: “This is the worst weather event in recorded history in West Alabama. The water is still not safe to drink and those in the direct path have been told to expect no power for at least a month. Two 18-wheeler freezer trailers are serving as a temoporary morgue.”

“Among other things,” McFarland continued, “I contemplated how the lack of safe water and electricity was a daily way of life for many in the impoverished Delta region. This has inspired me to redouble my efforts. I have also come to appreciate the many friends all over the nation who have volunteered time or contributed funds to the humanitarian efforts.”

McFarland said people from all over the region had come to Tuscaloosa to aid in the rebuilding effort, such as power crews from Missouri and Illinois, and relief teams from Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. He said the National Guard sent 1,500 troops to aid in the recovery.

The tornadoes struck across a large part of our region, of course, and not just in Tuscaloosa, from Missouri to Alabama. The entire storm system killed more than 300 people, with Tuscaloosa being one of the areas hardest hit, and the death toll will probably continue to rise. Rubble is still being cleared away. More than 7,000 homes were destroyed.

At one point 600,000 people were without power, but Alabama Power, Inc. has worked rapidly to remedy that problem and by May 6 there were only about 1,200 people without power.

There is a severe need for housing in Tuscaloosa, especially for low and moderate income people. Sewer, water, cell-phone and other infrastructure were severely damaged.

However, McFarland emphasized the resiliency of the people in Tuscaloosa, aided by people from across the region. He said FEMA officials praised Tuscaloosa for doing a month’s worth of work in a week’s time.

In a recent interview, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said the tornado took six minutes to inflict the damage, but it will take six years to recover from the disaster.

We will want to keep the powers that be focused on the need to provide adequate resources in the rebuilding process for those harmed by the flooding and storms in our region. We appreciate the efforts of Chairman Masingill, Billy McFarland and the many people who are working so hard in the recovery effort for our region, which has faced more disasters in the past five years–Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, massive tornado damage, the Gulf oil spill, flooding–than any other part of America. We are seeing the great resiliency of the Delta’s people in the recovery effort. Keep up your strength!

Lee Powell, director, MDGC (202) 360-6347