NEW MADRID - With more than 25 years in Missouri government, former Senator Jerry Howard already knew a lot about Southeast Missouri. Yet since October he has learned even more about what the area's residents see as their needs and the roadblocks to bettering their hometowns.
Howard is on the road with plans to visit some 70 communities in the six counties of Scott, Mississippi, New Madrid, Stoddard, Dunklin and Pemiscot. He intends to finish his road trip later this spring reporting his findings to Creative Communities Inc. in Malden.
"Generally I'm finding all these communities have significant needs - they vary though, some need more infrastructure, others need housing," said Howard.
Going to communities with populations of 10,000 or less, Howard is asking local leaders just exactly what their needs are, the roadblocks they face in meeting those needs and to make up a wish list of ways to improve their towns. Last Tuesday evening he met with a dozen New Madrid officials and townspeople.
The Rural Training and Resource Center Project, funded from a grant by the Rural Development USDA, hopes to maximize current resources and bring new resources to the six-county area. Howard explained their overall goal includes attraction of new businesses, expansion of current businesses and increasing the trained workforce in the area.
The information he is collecting will be used to provide the basis for putting together a resource book and resource center. The resource center, to be located in Malden, will be designed to serve as a training center for local officials. Here communities will be able to find assistance for researching everything from what information is available from federal and state sources to computer training. There will be no charge for use of the center or training materials, Howard emphasized.
In quizzing New Madrid residents about pressing needs, citizens mentioned development of commercial sites and cultivation of current businesses to encourage expansion. Code enforcement was also brought up, included the demolition of buildings in disrepair and a need for uniform enforcement.
State regulations, particularly those imposed by the Department of Natural Resources, also have proved to be an impediment for development, noted City Administrator Fergison Hunter. "And it is continuing to get worse," he added.
Activities for teenagers and young adults or even a recreational/community center would enhance the town, suggested Chris Henry, a member of the New Madrid Police Force. Councilman Glen Medlin noted that in many cases young adults are no longer in organizations, which once provided much of the volunteer manpower required in a community.
Those attending noted several pluses for the community including the low cost of industrial power and an excellent transportation system of rails, roads and river.
While the community does have an enterprise zone, Marian Bock, city clerk, suggested the state could widen its enterprise zone rules to encourage not just the development of industry but to also provide incentives for retail businesses.
Margaret Palmer, who serves as the executive director of the New Madrid Chamber of Commerce, said the river is an attraction for the community but more could be done to develop the area. Suggestions included a marina, restaurant or tour boats.
Analyzing their community is just the beginning, said Howard, who will compile their suggestions and comments and return them to the city.
"There used to be grant money out there, but that is gone," said Howard. "Now it is time for towns to start looking within on how we can solve problems, then they can reach out and find what is available."
He added a resource center, such as the one proposed by Creative Communities, could provide this information and offer networking possibilities where communities could learn about successes of other towns.