Last month, the Walton Family Foundation announced that Robert Burns will be the director of what's known as its Home Region Program.
Burns has several decades of experience in the areas of housing, philanthropy and community development. As a senior vice president of the multinational investment bank and financial services corporation Citi, he led efforts to promote economic empowerment in cities across the country.
The foundation based at Bentonville has been led by three generations of Walton family members and their spouses. They've helped make northwest Arkansas one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Walton Family Foundation grants are targeted and net positive results more often than not.
While Arkansans are familiar with work that has been done in northwest Arkansas, most aren't aware that the Delta is also considered part of the Home Region Program.
"The Walton Family Foundation will work steadily and boldly toward long-term change that unlocks opportunity for every person in northwest Arkansas and the Delta," says Tom Walton, the son of Jim Walton and grandson of Sam Walton. "Robert's background as a proven leader in community relations, cross-sector collaboration and social impact will provide a new perspective that encourages our partners and us to embrace innovative, community-driven solutions to the unique needs of these regions."
The 2020 census painted a stark picture of the Delta's plight. Between the 2010 and 2020 census, Phillips County's population fell from 21,757 to 16,568. That's a 23.8 percent drop. The county seat of Helena declined 22.5 percent from 12,282 to 9,519.
St. Francis County lost 18.3 percent of its population, Lee County lost 17.5 percent, Monroe County lost 16.6 percent, Woodruff County lost 13.7 percent and Chicot County lost 13.5 percent.
The Walton Family Foundation can help stop the bleeding. The grants will have to be large, and they'll need to be focused. The Delta must play to its strengths--agricultural production, outdoor recreational opportunities and its rich culture. Here are some suggestions for Burns and his team:
• Make Helena a model Delta town. The foundation has poured a huge amount of money into Helena through the years, but it's going to take more. The Delta is too big for programs in every county. But with investments in education, health care and housing at Helena, the Walton Family Foundation can create a model that will give direction to other Delta cities. The region needs a success story. The foundation knows the landscape and players at Helena, making it an obvious choice for the model city.
• Partner with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in its efforts to protect flooded bottomland hardwood forests that attract duck hunters from across the country. Duck hunting is part of the fabric of life in east Arkansas and a significant portion of the economy each winter. The commission recently announced plans to change water-control procedures on the Bayou Meto, Hurricane Lake and Bayou DeView wildlife management areas. The commission doesn't have enough money to do all that needs to be done. The foundation can do something about that and, in the process, save the thing (duck hunting) that gives the Delta the most national publicity.
• Partner with the University of Arkansas' Division of Agriculture to complete the Northeast Rice Research & Extension Center near Jonesboro. The center is on 600 acres in Poinsett County and is the only agricultural experiment station based on what are known as "white soils" in a part of northeast Arkansas where rice is king. The center will provide rice producers on these soils with needed research-based information. Arkansas produces half the nation's rice. For the Arkansas Delta to do well, we need the rice industry to do well. This center will help maximize the return for producers through the development of advanced farming methods.
• Partner with Arkansas State University to expand its heritage sites across the Delta. These include the Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash boyhood home, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center at Piggott, the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza and the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center in southeast Arkansas. ASU has played a key role in helping interpret Delta history. These heritage sites increase the quality of life for those who live in the region while also attracting visitors with money to spend.
• Help with the expansion of the Sultana Museum at Marion. For decades, it was believed that almost 1,800 Union soldiers perished when the Sultana sank. These soldiers had been released as prisoners of war. The overcrowded ship sank in the Mississippi River adjacent to Crittenden County in April 1865. Recent research indicates the number is closer to 1,200, which still means that more people died on the Sultana than perished on the USS Arizona during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The Sultana Museum will cost $7.5 million and be a part of a corridor for tourists that includes Dyess Colony and the nearby town of Wilson. Taken together, the attractions will cause many visitors to Memphis to spend a day or more on the Arkansas side of the river.
• Participate in development of the National Cold War Museum at Blytheville. The museum at the former Eaker Air Force Base will chronicle events that took place during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Future phases will include a welcome center, self-guided tours, an interactive alert tower and maybe even an institute for studying the Cold War. Done right, it will attract national attention and be among the most important developments in Delta history.
Southland Casino Racing at West Memphis is moving forward quickly with its high-rise hotel adjacent to Interstate 40. I can picture visitors staying there for multiple nights while making day trips to Marion, Dyess, Wilson and Blytheville. Success for these attractions will change people's perception of the Delta and lead to additional investments. The Walton Family Foundation can put this initiative into overdrive if it chooses to do so.
Wilson already has a benefactor in the form of Gaylon Lawrence Jr., who's among the nation's largest landowners. Lawrence acquired much of the former company town when he paid an estimated $150 million in 2010 for Lee Wilson & Co., which had operated one of the country's biggest cotton plantations. He has since spent millions of dollars transforming Wilson into a place that attracts well-heeled people from across the region with its restaurant, museum and upscale shops.
In December, Hotel Louis, a boutique hotel with 16 rooms, will open on the Wilson square. The town hosts regular events ranging from wine dinners to pottery classes.
With agriculture becoming even more mechanized, we're not going to see population increases in the Delta. With proper investments by entities such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Lawrence Group, however, life can improve for those who stay there. At the same time, the number of visitors who hike, bike, hunt, fish, listen to blues music, eat in famous restaurants and visit historic attractions will increase. It just takes vision, planning and money.
Last year, the Walton Family Foundation announced a $20 million grant for the Delta Heritage Trail, an 84.5-mile biking and pedestrian trail from Lexa to Arkansas City. The matching grant will allow the state Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism to complete the trail during the next five years. It was huge news for the Delta, but there's much more to do.
Even with all that has happened in northwest Arkansas, foundation officials might one day point to the Delta as their greatest accomplishment. The Delta is gravely ill but not yet dead. Saving this patient would be worthy of international news coverage.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.