Last month, the Walton Family Foundation announced that Robert Burns would become the director of the Home Region Program.
Burns has decades of housing, philanthropy, and community development experience. As senior vice president of multinational investment bank and financial services company Citi, he led efforts to promote the economic empowerment of cities across the country.
The Bentonville-based foundation is run by three generations of Walton family members and their spouses. They helped make northwest Arkansas one of the fastest growing areas in the country. The Walton Family Foundation grants are targeted and in most cases produce positive results.
While Arkansans are familiar with working in northwest Arkansas, most don’t know that the Delta is also considered part of the Home Area Program.
“The Walton Family Foundation will steadfastly and boldly work towards long-term change that will open opportunities for everyone in northwest Arkansas and the Delta,” said Tom Walton, son of Jim Walton and grandson of Sam Walton. “Robert’s background as a proven leader in community relationships, cross-industry collaboration and social impact will provide a new perspective that will encourage our partners and us to develop innovative, community-centric solutions to the unique needs of these regions.”
The 2020 census painted a clear picture of the delta’s plight. Between the 2010 and 2020 census, the population of Phillips County decreased from 21,757 to 16,568. That is a decrease of 23.8 percent. The district town of Helena fell by 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 have to be big and they have to be focused. The delta has to play to its strengths – agricultural production, outdoor recreational opportunities and its rich culture. Here are some suggestions for Burns and his team:
• Make Helena an exemplary delta city. The Foundation has put a lot of money into Helena over the years, but more will be needed. The delta is too big for programs in any county. But by investing in education, health care and housing in 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 the players of Helena and is therefore an obvious choice for the model city.
• Work with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission to protect flooded hardwood forests that attract duck hunters from across the country. Duck hunting is part of life in east Arkansas and a significant part of the economy each winter. The commission recently announced plans to change water control procedures in the Bayou Meto, Hurricane Lake and Bayou DeView wildlife sanctuaries. The Commission does not have enough money to do all that needs to be done. The foundation can do something about this and save the thing (duck hunting) that gives the delta the most national notoriety.
• Partnered with the University of Arkansas Department of Agriculture to complete the Northeast Rice Research & Extension Center near Jonesboro. Located on 600 acres in Poinsett County, the center is the only agricultural experimental station based on so-called “white soil” in part of northeast Arkansas where rice is king. The center will provide rice producers on these soils with the necessary research-based information. Arkansas produces half of the country’s rice. For the Arkansas Delta to do well, we need the rice industry. This center will help maximize the yield for growers by developing advanced growing methods.
• Partnered with Arkansas State University to expand their heritage sites across the Delta. These include the Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash Youth Home, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott, the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, and the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center in southeast Arkansas . ASU has played a key role in interpreting the history of Delta. These cultural heritage sites increase the quality of life for residents of the area while also attracting visitors looking to spend money.
• Help with the expansion of the Sultana Museum in Marion. For decades it was believed that nearly 1,800 Union soldiers were killed in the fall of the Sultana. These soldiers had been released as prisoners of war. The overcrowded ship sank in the Mississippi River near Crittenden County in April 1865. Recent research shows the number is closer to 1,200, which still means that more people died on the Sultana than on the USS Arizona during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The Sultana Museum will cost $ 7.5 million and will be part of a tourist corridor that includes the Dyess Colony and the nearby town of Wilson. Taken together, the attractions will draw many visitors to Memphis to spend a day or more on the Arkansas side of the river.
• Help develop the National Cold War Museum in Blytheville. The museum on the former Eaker Air Force Base will document the events of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Future phases will include a welcome center, self-guided tours, an interactive warning tower, and perhaps even a Cold War research institute. If done right, it will attract national attention and be a major development in the history of the Delta.
Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis is making rapid progress with its high-rise hotel off Interstate 40. I can imagine visitors spending several nights there and taking day trips to Marion, Dyess, Wilson, and Blytheville. The success of these attractions will change people’s perception of the Delta and lead to additional investment. The Walton Family Foundation can get this initiative going if it wants to.
Wilson already has a benefactor in the form of Gaylon Lawrence Jr., who is one of the largest landowners in the country. Lawrence acquired much of the former corporate town when he paid an estimated $ 150 million in 2010 for Lee Wilson & Co., which operated one of the largest cotton plantations in the country. Since then, he has spent millions of dollars transforming Wilson into a place that draws well-heeled people from across the region with its restaurants, museums, and upscale shops.
In December, the Hotel Louis, a 16-room boutique hotel, opens on Wilson Square. The town hosts regular events ranging from wine evenings to pottery classes.
As agriculture becomes more mechanized, we will not see any population growth in the delta. However, with appropriate investment from institutions like the Walton Family Foundation and the Lawrence Group, the lives of those who stay can improve. At the same time, the number of visitors hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, listening to blues music, eating in famous restaurants, and visiting historical sites 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 bike and pedestrian route from Lexa to Arkansas City. The corresponding grant will allow the State Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism to complete the trail over the next five years. This was big news for the Delta, but there is much more to be done.
Despite what has happened in northwest Arkansas, foundation officials may one day refer to the Delta as their greatest asset. The Delta is seriously ill, but not dead yet. Saving this patient would be worthy of international coverage.
Rex Nelson is the chief editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.