The federal agency tasked with economic development in the Delta is without a leader. It’s up to President Donald Trump to appoint a new federal co-chairman for the Delta Regional Authority. The DRA’s supporters are hoping for the President to act quickly so that tens of millions of dollars can be freed up for investment. But the Trump’s budget proposals have called for eliminating the authority entirely.
Former DRA Chair Chris Masingill’s time at the helm was put to an end last week after seven years. He was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2010 and was held over through the first seven months of the new administration. Masingill says he’s not surprised his time is up.
“This is just the standard operating business when you have a change of administration,” he said. “It’s important that you have some continuity of operation and they recognized that. We knew this was going to happen at some point.”
Masingill wants whoever his replacement is to be named soon and to head for offices in Washington D.C. and Clarskdale, Mississippi.
“Hopefully there will not be a big gap between me rotating out and the next federal co-chair person,” said Masingill. “Without that federal member the agency can’t make investments. We can’t operate at full capacity.”
The Delta Regional Authority is a federal-state partnership comprised of eight states along the Mississippi River. Its creation came in the final days of former Arkansas Governor and President Bill Clinton’s administration. A bipartisan coalition backed its creation. Arkansas’s U.S. Senators at the time, Tim Hutchinson (R) and Blanch Lincoln (D) sponsored the legislation that launched the DRA. It’s budget has grown from a few million dollars to $28 million.
The Delta Grassroots Caucus is a key coalition of industry and community leaders that advocates for causes like the authority. Executive Director Lee Powell, who worked in the Clinton administration, says the new DRA co-chair needs to be a Republican, “Of course President Trump is a Republican and we have a Republican Congress. It needs to be somebody who can work effectively with them.”
Powell says it’s important for the Delta Grassroots Caucus and others to try and make this a priority to the Trump administration.
“It is true that the DRA is a very small agency and naturally President Trump and the White House have many other matters that are on a much larger scale so we do need to beat the drum and tell them they need to fill this position,” he said. “We’re hoping President Trump will fill the post fairly soon.”
Powell says he’s talked to several prospective candidates and the caucus is pitching names to the Trump administration. He’s looking for a few qualities in a co-chair.
“It would be good to have someone with some local and state elected office in his or her background. It would be good if they live in the heart of the Delta. Being bipartisan is a crucial consideration,” he said.
It’s not just an unfilled appointment that is cause for some concern at the Delta Regional Authority. The President’s budget proposals called for eliminating the authority’s budget entirely, along with that of the larger Appalachian Regional Commission. But Powell doesn’t express too much concern.
“While we want to take that budget seriously, much of the reason that budget was presented was to strengthen the President’s appeal to his base. But very few people - and we think very few people probably even within the Trump administration - think they’re going to be able to abolish those commissions.”
He said, “ARC and DRA are both on chopping block by President Trump but we believe that Congress is just not going to allow those commission to be abolished. They have mostly done a good job and they know that.”
Powell does have a few critiques of Masingill that he believes have cast a bit of a shadow on the DRA.
“We would like to see a recommitment to channeling the DRA funds into the heart of the Delta. There have unfortunately been a few departures from that in the last two or three years” he said. “Some of the funding in the last two or three years has gone to Little Rock, North Little Rock, Fairfield Bay, Bull Shoals, and El Dorado. Those places are simply not located in the Delta.”
But for his part, Masingill is proud of the work he’s done throughout his seven year run.
“We’ve seen our Congressional appropriations double during my tenure. We’ve invested in over 560 projects. We’ve seen investments from the DRA into economic development, which has joined with other resources, to combine total project investments of over $3.4 billion,” said Masingill.
He highlighted the launch of the Delta Corps program, a national service program, and a focus on workforce training to create “certified work ready communities” as accomplishments.
“It’s about human capitol, that’s the most important issue facing economic development. We attract employers, entrepreneurs and opportunity by having career tech to “amazing contributions of art and culture, our food, and who we are as a people. People come from all over the world to one of the most historic and iconic places in America and we want to use that as an economic development opportunity.”
Of course the Delta remains one of the most impoverished regions in the nation with low education levels and high rates of food insecurity among a plethora of maladies.
But looking back on his run, Masingill contends the Delta Regional Authority has made some inroads, “We didn’t get into this situation overnight. We’re not talking about a sprint. We’re talking about a marathon and I’m proud of the work our team has done.”