Chairman’s Briefing: National Infrastructure Week 2016

May 16, 2016

As we celebrated Economic Development Week last week and look forward to Infrastructure Week this week, I can’t help but go back to my days working on economic development issues and projects in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It was there I learned how committed the people on the ground are to seeing their communities grow and realize economic opportunities. It was there I also learned the importance of strong public infrastructure in bringing growth and economic progress to places like the Delta region.

The DRA works to create jobs, build communities, and improve the lives of the people of the Delta region. But we cannot do it alone, and we are appreciative of the work of our economic developers. I know that sometimes the role of the economic development professional is understated and misunderstood, so please hear me when I say that our economic developers are some of our region’s greatest advocates and that they come with many titles besides “professional economic developer.” Sometimes they are our mayors, county executives, small business owners, and utility companies, among others.

By working closely with our region’s local planning and development districts, local elected officials, and economic developers at all levels, I have seen firsthand that these are people who see the value in the places they represent and in the people and businesses they support. Most importantly, they know how to convey that value to job creators across the world.

And we are seeing the results of those efforts. According to Southern Business and Development magazine’s most recent issue“of the 100 largest capital investments announced each year in the South over the last 11 years, 247 of the 1,100 — 23 percent — came from the eight-state Mississippi River Delta and Alabama Black Belt region. That is an astounding total considering population in the Delta region accounts for a little more than 8 percent of the South’s total population of 120 million.”

The Delta region has much to offer visitors, tourists, and businesses. With some of the lowest costs to doing business and access to areas with multimodal transportation and natural resources, the Delta region is attracting jobs and investment. The Delta Regional Authority wants to support the efforts of our communities and our economic developers by continuing to support workforce training initiatives that help communities and regions develop a pipeline of skilled and trained workers and to invest in our region’s public infrastructure through the States’ Economic Development Assistance Program and the newly created Community Infrastructure Fund.

In the DRA's Regional Development Plan III, released this month, one of our three goals for the next five years is to strengthen the region's infrastructure increasing Delta communities' connectivity, capacity, and competitiveness on the national and global levels. We have prioritized this in our strategic plan because we know that without modernized infrastructure in our communities, our small businesses, governments, schools, and hospitals cannot survive, and we will struggle to recruit new businesses and opportunities without access to public infrastructure like transportation, broadband, and water systems.

We know that in some of our communities our bridges are structurally deficient, our access to the internet is not universal, and our rural towns’ water and sewer systems are often inadequate and in need of rehabilitation. The quality of our infrastructure will determine our future, and in order to reach our full potential, we must continue to invest in modern, efficient infrastructure systems in our region.

Since its inception, DRA has seen great opportunities to invest in our communities by investing in their public infrastructure. We are proud to say that since 2002, we have invested more than $89 million into improving the infrastructure needed to keep our region moving forward, and those investments have leveraged an additional $1.8 billion in other public and private investment in Delta communities. From updating flood pump stations in southern Illinois to reopening a rail spur in eastern Arkansas, DRA recognizes the value in these projects. That’s why Congress saw fit to grant DRA an additional $10 million this year to create the Community Infrastructure Fund. Through the CIF, DRA will be able to increase the number of crucial infrastructure projects it can support.

But $10 million does not meet all of these needs. And DRA can’t do it alone. We need bold plans to guarantee the kinds of investments at all levels of government that emulate such past investments like the national highway system and the trans-continental railroad, the kinds of innovations that transformed how our country trades and travels. President Obama has already launched the Build America Investment Initiative to increase private investment in our nation's infrastructure. Also, three of our partner agencies are making their own investments in America's infrastructure:

  • the Build America Transportation Investment Center, housed at the U.S. Department of Transportation, serves as a one-stop shop for cities and states seeking to use innovative financing and partnerships with the private sector to support transportation infrastructure;
  • the Water Finance and Resiliency Center at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a resource for local governments and the private sector looking for innovative financing tools and technical support for wastewater, drinking water and stormwater systems projects throughout the country; and
  • the Rural Opportunity Investment initiative, in which the DRA has been an active participant, and its accompanying Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund that the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered with CoBank to help encourage more business investments in rural America and to maximize the impact of USDA's own investments in job-creating rural infrastructure projects.

We must continue to support our economic developers in bringing new jobs and economic growth to the region by making smart decisions of how we investment our money, aligning those investments with the needs of our local communities and taking advantage of opportunities to strengthen our region’s infrastructure. As always you can visit DRA.gov to learn more about how we support economic development and our local leaders through our regional funds and programs, and may we take this week to recognize how important our local and regional human and physical infrastructures are to making the Delta a great place to live and work.