MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block with the second part of our series about life on the Mississippi delta. Yesterday, we heard about the hard economic times in the region. The loss of agriculture and factory jobs has left low-skilled workers struggling. Thirteen counties in the delta have double-digit unemployment rates. Today, NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on what some residents say is needed to bring the region out of poverty.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:
Finding work in Tchula, Mississippi, is nearly impossible.
Mr. CALVIN HEAD (Director, West Holmes County Community Development Organization): You can talk to 20, 30 people right now, and all of them will say there's nothing to do here, and I agree.
ELLIOTT: Calvin Head is director of the West Holmes County Community Development project housed in a squat concrete-block building along the highway.
Mr. HEAD: There are no factories. There's no industry other than agriculture, but my philosophy is: What do we do? Do we always just say there's nothing here, or do we try to do something about it? Nobody's going to say, `Bring in a factory and bring in industry here.' That's not going to happen. But I'm not a complainer. I'm not the one to just sit back and say, `Poor, poor me.' I'm saying that there are opportunities that exist that we gotta create if they don't exist.
(Unintelligible), how you doing?
Unidentified Woman: All right. How you doing?
ELLIOTT: Across from an abandoned train station, local residents are pumping gas and shopping at a sparsely stocked convenience store operated by Head's agency.
Mr. HEAD: I tell you, it was an abandoned building pretty much. It didn't have any gas. We hadn't had gas in this community in the last probably 20, 30 years.
ELLIOTT: The agency also operates a day care, a vegetable growing program and a rehabilitation center. Head says the idea is to empower people here to change their plight despite a history of racism and neglect.
Mr. HEAD: I don't think the system is so much against us now. I think we're against ourselves, because it's going to have to be people that--especially these young people who go and get degrees and who develop skills, they're going to have to just stay and say, `You know, we're going to have to make something happen here.'
ELLIOTT: Depending on others to save them hasn't worked, he says.
Mr. HEAD: I think we're being prostituted a lot. I think people take advantage of our poverty, and Holmes County is the poorest in the state of Mississippi. And I think there are people who exploit that. They know that we're in this condition. They will say, `We're going to set this up to help these people.' People give them money, but the conditions are the same as they were when they first got the money.
ELLIOTT: The job issue is a problem throughout the delta, even in the cities. The Greenville area lost about 2,000 manufacturing jobs between 1993 and 2002, leaving people hungry for work, says local businesswoman Sue Evans.
Ms. SUE EVANS (Enterprise Corporation of the Delta): If a job becomes available, you have hundreds of people waiting in line. Sometimes, if there's 20 jobs, you could have 200 people applying. It's just unbelievable the needs of jobs. I think a lot of people thought that some of the jobs were going to come back in manufacturing, and they never did. There's kind of a disjointedness. And, you know, when the jobs leave and you think they're coming back, so you wait, and it doesn't come. So then, what happens, you have to kind of reinvent yourself.
ELLIOTT: Evans recently returned to the delta after working most of her life in Los Angeles. She grew up in Leland, Mississippi. Now Evans is a loan officer for the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, which makes commercial loans to people, often low-income, who have trouble finding start-up money elsewhere.
Ms. EVANS: Opening up convenience stores, opening up grocery stores, day care for children, car washes, recycling, trucking. It can be just about anything.
ELLIOTT: But Evans doubts those businesses are enough to revive the delta's economy.
Ms. EVANS: Because they're not hiring that many people. When a plant leaves, you have 2 or 300 people who are displaced. It would take so many businesses to be created to absorb that, because on average, maybe they have five employees, and a lot of times, people open these businesses, it's their family that works there, and they hire two or three other people.
ELLIOTT: What the delta needs are more Vikings, as in the Viking Range Corporation, a homegrown company that employes some 1,100 people making luxury kitchen appliances in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Mr. FRED CARL Jr. (Founder, Viking Range Corporation): People think our corporate office is probably in a double-wide trailer, and our factory's over in a tin shed.
ELLIOTT: That's Viking founder Fred Carl Jr., an energetic man sporting a short, gray beard and round spectacles. Carl was a contractor building houses in Greenwood when he realized that people wanted commercial-grade stoves in their homes, but the ones made for restaurants didn't fit in residential kitchens. He tried to launch the business from bigger cities, even out of state. But ultimately, he decided to do it from home.
Mr. CARL: And I just always am drawn back to the delta. I am more comfortable here, and I just don't think Viking would have ever happened anywhere but here, and I'm sincere about that. I really don't think I could have done it anywhere else.
ELLIOTT: Now Viking appliances are the standard in upscale homes worldwide. The company headquarters are right downtown.
Mr. CARL: Well, this is Howard Street, and Viking is--See that building with the two skylights, big skylights? That's our corporate office. It faces that Yazoo River.
ELLIOTT: Carl is pointing from the rooftop terrace at his new hotel, the Alluvian, named for the rich floodplain on which it stands. It's a luxury hotel in the full sense of the word: designer furniture, plush bedding, tiled walk-in showers, amenities you don't expect to find in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Mr. CARL: So that's one reason we did these facilities the way we've done them, to overcome that stigma. And this was a great opportunity also to do something for downtown Greenwood, because this place was just horrible.
ELLIOTT: The old Hotel Irving was once the place to stay during the delta's heyday in the 1940s, when Greenwood was a thriving cotton post. Carl remembers coming to town with his mother as a young boy.
Mr. CARL: That was the JC Penney store right there. And that was the Woolworth 10-cent store. It was just a really nice downtown with some really nice stores. There was a lot of money flowing through this town, and then all that changed. The delta just started a period of decline.
ELLIOTT: Carl says new bypasses took traffic around the cities and towns. Today, trendy new gift shops fill the storefronts along Howard Street. But just a few blocks away, as you drive into downtown Greenwood, the picture is different. Windows are covered with plywood and graffiti, and entire blocks appear deserted. Carl admits he sends Viking's new recruits on an alternate route into town, one that brings them down a tree-lined boulevard with historic homes. Someday, he hopes, it would matter which way they drive into Greenwood.
Mr. CARL: We are gradually changing, and just being positive and giving the delta and especially Greenwood and Leflore County, people here something to be proud of and something to brag about. You've got to have something to brag about.
ELLIOTT: There's one thing people in the delta already brag about.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: The Mississippi delta is the birthplace of the blues, and increasingly, the region is marketing itself as a destination for tourists who want to see where Son House grew up, or visit the famous Crossroads in Clarksdale, where legend has it the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I went to the crossroad, and I knelt on my knee.
Mr. BILL LUCKETT (Local Lawyer): And we're walking south on Delta Avenue in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi delta. The Mississippi delta, where cotton is king, corn liquor is queen, every night is Saturday night, every day is payday, two vacations a year, six months apiece, the richest land, the poorest people.
ELLIOTT: Local lawyer Bill Luckett is quoting the graffiti on the bathroom wall at Ground Zero Blues Club, the juke joint he owns with the actor Morgan Freeman.
Mr. LUCKETT: Hey, Billy.
BILLY: How you doing?
Mr. LUCKETT: How you doing?
(Soundbite of club activity)
Mr. LUCKETT: This building sat empty for 34 years before I bought it, and then Morgan and I opened this club. But it was just an empty rotting-away building...
ELLIOTT: Now the place is hopping.
(Soundbite of club activity)
ELLIOTT: Tourists from around the world come here to eat soul food and listen to live music.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Deep blue sea, I've heard all, all is good (unintelligible).
ELLIOTT: Other parts of the delta are also trying to cash in on tourists. Dozens of blues festivals are held each year, and casinos are a big draw and employer for river towns. But it's far from a boom. Luckett admits their Clarksdale ventures have yet to break even. He says for the local economy to turn the corner, deep-seated cultural problems have to improve.
Mr. LUCKETT: We're going to have to, as a town, overcome something for this to become a viable economy in this area. We still have, in effect, segregated schools here. And unless and until Clarksdale can pull the races together, unless we change that, Clarksdale is going to continue to suffer.
ELLIOTT: Luckett and Freeman also opened a high-end restaurant in Clarksdale, and the actor was home recently, having a meal there. He grew up in Greenwood and worked picking cotton as a boy. He's an advocate of the region, embracing heritage tourism.
Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): In the delta, the history here is really, really rich, a little ugly, but very rich. And I don't think that it's harmful for us to not only know it, but trumpet it, because your history is your definition of person. It's the definition of place. And the delta has always been sort of mysterious, you know. It's different from just about any other place on the planet, and I revel in it.
ELLIOTT: Always at the heart of the delta is the land. The region is still very much a rural agrarian place where farming is a noble profession.
Mr. JOE AGUZZI (Farmer): My grandfather came to Lake Village, Arkansas, which is 50 miles from here, in 1895.
ELLIOTT: Meet Joe Aguzzi.
Mr. AGUZZI: They needed labor to work the land. He came on the first boat, you would say, of a hundred Italian families, and they, I think, had to stay on that farm until they paid their fare back. Grandad had borrowed, like, 200-and-some dollars to make his first crop.
ELLIOTT: Today, the Aguzzis own nearly 10,000 acres of farmland and hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment to tend it. He jokes about how much simpler and less expensive it was to run mules. Then he turns serious, poking a stick into the dark soil on one of his rice fields. Aguzzi says it would be nearly impossible to start a farm operation like this today. He's proud of what he's been able to leave his sons and grandsons, and happy that they've stuck with it.
Mr. AGUZZI: Right now, they're living in the best of times, because we got three or four generations that's all still able to work. But when we're gone, they'll have to start hiring somebody to help manage. So we're living in the best of times.
ELLIOTT: Aguzzi says he knows how lucky his family is to be thriving in the Mississippi delta given the tremendous change that's occurred here. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
BLOCK: You can see photos from the Mississippi delta and hear part one of this series at our Web site, npr.org.