Reviving Mississippi Delta a Long, Slow Process

Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett

Actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in Greenwood, Miss., co-owns a restaurant and a blues club in Clarksdale with lawyer Bill Luckett (right). Debbie Elliott, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott, NPR

Part 1 of This Report:

Joe Aguzzi (right) and his grandson Michael

The Aguzzi family came to the Delta region in the late 1800s. They now own a nearly 10,000-acre farm operation. Joe Aguzzi (right, seen with his grandson) says he knows how lucky his family is to be thriving, given the tremendous change in the region. Debbie Elliott, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott, NPR
Mississippi Delta map i i

In the state of Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta is defined as the alluvial plane between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. NPR hide caption

itoggle caption NPR
Mississippi Delta map

In the state of Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta is defined as the alluvial plane between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers.

NPR

The steady loss of agricultural and factory jobs has left the Mississippi Delta with a low-skilled workforce struggling for income. Thirteen counties in the region have double-digit unemployment rates.

Entrepreneurs are taking various approaches to try to revive the region. The Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, for example, makes commercial loans to people, often of low-income, who have trouble finding start-up money elsewhere. The money has gone to carwashes, recycling centers, grocery stores and other local businesses, but loan officer Sue Evans says the jobs generated by these small business still aren't enough to replace those lost by the decline of manufacturing.

"When a plant leaves, you have 200-300 people that are displaced," Evans says. "It would take so many businesses to be created to absorb that, because on average, they have maybe five employees."

What the region needs is more success stories like the Viking Corporation of Greenwood, Miss. The homegrown maker of luxury kitchen appliances employs some 1,100 people. Recently, the company also set up a luxury hotel downtown to house visiting clients. "This was a great opportunity… to do something for downtown Greenwood, because this place was horrible," Founder Fred Carl Jr. says.

Increasingly, the region that gave birth to the blues is marketing itself as a destination for tourists through music clubs and festivals, and through river-town casinos that have helped generate some jobs.

But it's far from a boom. Local lawyer Bill Luckett, who co-owns a blues club and restaurant in Clarksdale, Miss., with actor Morgan Freeman, admits their ventures have yet to break even. He says for the local economy to turn the corner, deep-seated cultural problems have to improve.

"We are going to have to… overcome something for this to become a viable economy in this area," Luckett says. "We still have, in effect, segregated schools here, and unless Clarksdale pulls the races together, unless we change that, Clarksdale is going to continue to suffer."

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