Hope Springs Eternal: Nonprofits Show Progress in Slowing Helena's Decline

by Kate Knable  on Monday, Apr. 2, 2012 12:00 am  

Julia Nordsieck of Southern Bancorp Community Partners on Cherry Street in Helena.

"We've played a definite role in stabilizing the community," said Miller, 45, who serves on the board of Southern Bancorp Community Partners.

Promising Signs
Here's evidence of newfound stability: The population of Phillips County, which is still less than two-thirds its 1980 level, actually grew by 4 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to data tracked in Mississippi State University's Mid-South Delta Data Library.
The 2010 Census found 21,757 residents in Phillips County, 12,282 of them in Helena, which merged with West Helena in 2006.

The pause in population decline is one of several recent changes suggesting to local leadership that, while Helena may never return to its pre-1980 prosperity, the town still may be on the cusp of a healthy upswing.

"I think we're on the verge of a renaissance," said Doug Friedlander, executive director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce. 

Friedlander, 35, arrived in Helena in 2004 with Teach for America. The New Yorker taught in the Helena-West Helena School District for three years and then decided to transplant to the town long term.

"This area is the most fertile place on earth," Friedlander said. "It's a land of opportunity for people who want to make any difference."

Some people stay in Helena because they're afraid their work will unravel once they leave; others stay because opportunities abound for young people to step into key leadership roles, Friedlander said.

"It's too darn exciting. ... This is a place where a few people can make a big difference," he said.

He and other community leaders named nonprofit organizations that have migrated to Helena, bringing services with them, as other harbingers of a hopeful future of holistic revitalization.

Thrive, for example, is a nonprofit branding and marketing firm that is working to provide services and training to entrepreneurs. The organization opened up shop in Helena in 2009.

Another, Accion, is a nonprofit microlender based in San Antonio that opened a Helena office last October. Accion's loan officer for the Delta, Nathanial Owen, said the lender offers loans from $500 to $250,000 to small-business entrepreneurs

"There is a gap in the financing options that are available, especially in these more rural areas," Owen said. "We want everyone to rise together. That's certainly what Accion's about."



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