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VOL. 124 | NO. 43 | Wednesday, March 4, 2009

DRA Soon to Host Regional Conference In Memphis

By Eric Smith

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The Delta Regional Authority will host its 2009 annual conference in Memphis, a city that serves as a commercial and cultural hub for the Mississippi Delta.

The conference will be titled “Models of Success” because of Memphis’ position in multimodal and transportation industries, two focal points for the Clarksdale, Miss.-based Delta Regional Authority.

Scheduled for April 27-28 at the Memphis Marriott Downtown, the event is the fifth annual conference for DRA, an organization formed in 2000 by the U.S. Congress to “enhance economic development and improve the quality of life for the hard-working residents of this region,” according to its Web site, www.dra.gov.

And a cornerstone of the DRA’s mission is transportation. The organization last summer compiled a Multimodal Transportation Asset Needs and Recommendations Report, and the year before compiled a Delta Development Highway System plan, both of which outline priorities for infrastructure improvements in all eight member states.

Regional nexus

Memphis plays a prominent role in the DRA’s plans. Calling Memphis the “economic center of the Mid-South,” DRA federal co-chairman Pete Johnson said the city is an ideal place to host the conference following other key Mississippi Delta cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis.

“We’ll hold Memphis up as being the perfect example of a multimodal, economic center,” Johnson said by phone from Clarksdale this week. “Many of the small cities and towns throughout the region will not ever have the resources Memphis has, but they can learn from what Memphis has done in that Memphis has not sat on its laurels.”

How, exactly, is Memphis the standard bearer for other Delta cities when it comes to multimodal and transportation success?

“They’ve continued to be on the cutting edge of developing their highway system, of developing their rail system, of developing their airport system, of developing their river system and expanding it to the point that it has become the No. 1 freight hub in the world,” he said.

With the world’s busiest cargo airport, five Class I railroads, the country’s fourth-largest inland port and two interstates (plus another pair, I-22 and I-69, coming), Memphis is clearly the top distribution center in America, not to mention the Delta, Johnson said.

That will put Memphis in the spotlight as leaders of communities large and small gather here to learn how to better their economies.

“What we’re saying to cities around the region is, ‘Look at Memphis and how they have coordinated these different components of multimodal and learn how one plays off the other, and if you don’t have one, what you can do,’ ” Johnson said. “If you don’t have rail coming through your town, then can you have a rail spur coming to your town? And what would be the economic impact of that? Why should you encourage an interstate or a four-lane highway from your community to other economic centers?”

Why indeed

Those points were emphasized in two of the DRA’s works over the past couple of years. First, the $18.5 billion Delta Development Highway System was designed to revamp the entire region’s transportation infrastructure through new and improved roads.

Second, the Multimodal Transportation Asset Needs and Recommendations Report identified the Delta’s robust network of transportation and multimodal assets – such as Memphis International Airport, the International Port of Memphis and the city’s numerous intermodal yards – while also addressing needs for boosting those industries in other parts of the Delta.

With a host of “shovel-ready” projects listed in it, those reports will come in handy as federal stimulus money is distributed over the coming weeks and months.

“We are the only region in the United States that has a plan in place for our cities and counties and states to take advantage of (the stimulus),” Johnson said.

But next month’s DRA conference doesn’t focus entirely on multimodal and transportation issues. The event will present a holistic approach to improving Delta communities, from technology to economic development.

Speakers and panels for the conference include a keynote address by University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari; an opening session speech by Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen; a discussion of regionalism by Jesse White Jr., director, Office of Economic and Business Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and how to develop sustainable tourism by Susan Whitaker, Tennessee commissioner of tourism.

Other features include local development district roundtables, readiness training workshops, grant opportunities, plus alternative energy, retirement, education and work force development panels.

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