A bank holding company modelled after Chicago's ShoreBank, Southern Development Bancorporation (Southern) has been active in rural Arkansas since the late 1980s, using capital and credit to create new patterns of investment in business, training, housing, and health. To Southern, the bank, the school, and the hospital rank with city council and the chamber of commerce as institutions essential to a town's prosperity. Southern makes loan and investments in order to strengthen this local institutional fabric as well as to assist entrepreneurs.
In 1998, Southern took its comprehensive strategy to the counties bordering the Mississippi River. The shift away from labour-intensive agriculture over the last 40 years has broken the economy of this Delta region. An exodus of wealth, talent, and energy has impoverished hundreds of towns and villages.
To jump-start a new, 21st century economy in the region, Southern found that it had to take a very different tack. It had to focus development services and resources on a handful of towns in hopes of creating a "ripple effect" over a 50-mile radius. Its staff had to act as catalysts of community development, directly assisting residents with long-term plans for initiatives in education, housing, leadership, health, and in the economy (the manufacturing sector, especially). Finally, Southern needed to collaborate very closely with other major agencies committed to the Delta: state and federal programs, and the Walton Family Foundation. To make a difference in a region as distressed as the Delta, Southern and the Foundation had to take action "an inch wide and a mile deep."
The Delta Bridge Project, as this experiment is called, is now entering its second 3-year cycle of planning, proposal, and investment. It tries to bring to regional revitalization a decisive combination of local control, comprehensive action, a long time line, and massive support from outside agencies.