Funding for area all but gone

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 20, 2003

Tell a person he’s just been given $5 million, and he’ll probably clean your feet with his hair. Give a person a quarter, and he’s halfway to a cold drink.

Alabama, and seven other states in the region, are halfway to a cold drink. And for the people charged with developing the economy of this area, they’re all the way into a cold shower.

The Delta Regional Authority, formed three years ago by a group of powerful Washington politicians, was designed to change "economically distressed" counties in the "Delta Region" forever. Now, the DRA has apparently withered into little more than a spit in the bucket for rural states like Alabama.

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On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby announced the federal government has allocated $5 million to be spread among eight states, 240 counties, and more than 20 million people. Or, on average, that means each person in the Delta Region will receive 25 cents.

Jamie Wallace, who now travels the West Alabama area helping develop the economy, served as executive director of the Dallas County Chamber of Commerce when the DRA was first announced by Shelby and other U.S. Senators.

Basically, the DRA and the Appalachian Regional Commission were formed to help poor counties improve their infrastructure and transportation. Federal organizers of the respective commissions believed that if more federal funding could be pumped into the areas where basic infrastructure was poor, then the area would flourish economically.

In part, the idea has worked. While the Delta Regional Authority received $5 million, the Appalachian Region Commission &045;&045; which covers some of northeast Alabama &045;&045; received $66 million this year.

Things won’t get any better after this year’s appropriation. Less than two weeks ago, Hayes Dent &045;&045; who works at the DRA’s headquarters in Clarksdale, Miss., felt confident his organization would get at least $15 million this year.

Obviously that didn’t happen, and the trend for funding of the DRA does not provide a picture of optimism. In fact, the federal government has never met the obligation is promised at the DRA’s inception.

In 2001, the DRA was promised $30 million. It actually received $20 million. In 2002 and 2003, the organization received $10 million. And next year’s funding, announced Wednesday, has been cut in half.

And there may be no better example of the capability of the DRA than in Demopolis. A new higher education center is scheduled to be open in the fall of 2004. Most of the money for construction of the college &045;&045; $1.25 million &045;&045; came from a DRA grant.

Despite the cut in funding, Shelby remained optimistic about the program.