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Arkansas Inc. Podcast: Delta Regional Authority Federal Co-Chairman Dr. Corey Wiggins

 August 31, 2022

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, Delta Regional Authority federal co-chairman Dr. Corey Wiggins discusses the DRA’s mission to revitalize its regional footprint, economic development in Arkansas, and the Delta Leadership Institute program.


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TRANSCRIPT

Corey Wiggins:

This is Dr. Corey Wiggins, federal co-chair of the Delta Regional Authority, and you're listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Clint O'Neal:

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clint O'Neal. I serve as deputy director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Today on the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, we're fortunate to be joined by the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. Dr. Corey Wiggins nominated by President Biden on December 15th, 2021, Dr. Wiggins was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate on March 10th, 2022, and becomes the fourth DRA federal co-chairman to serve in the position. A native of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Chairman Wiggins brings a diverse set of career experiences that includes working in academia, state government, nonprofit, and private sectors. Chairman Wiggins most recently served as the executive director of the Mississippi state conference NAACP. He completed his undergraduate studies with a BS in biology from Alcorn State university. He received an MS in public health with an emphasis in health policy and a PhD in health promotion and health education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Chairman Wiggins, welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Corey Wiggins:

Thank you, Clint. So happy, excited to be here with you today.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, glad you're here. It took a long time to get through your bio, very accomplished. And so for the audience, along with being deputy director of AEDC also have the good fortune of being on the board of DRA as governor Asa Hutchinson's designee. So Chairman Wiggins and I get the opportunity to work together for the betterment of the DRA region and Arkansas. So very proud to do that. So Chairman Wiggins, we're recording this in Little Rock. Very happy to have you in Arkansas. You just gave a keynote address at the Arkansas Economic Developers and Chamber Executives Conference. Tell us a little bit about your impression of economic development in Arkansas and our state in general.

Corey Wiggins:

Well, look, first Clint, just thank you for your service that you give and provide to DRA, among your other duties that you serve the folks here in the state of Arkansas. Really excited and was just pleased to be invited to share time at the conference today. My impression of what I heard and what I've seen is that Arkansas has a lot of good things going on. I heard and listened to Governor Hutchinson talk about all the different things and his seven pillars around economic development and success from Arkansas, was able to watch a video that talked about over the past several years, all of the industry and alignment that is happening across the region and ultimately just having a bird's eye view of it. I think it speaks to the amazing level of cooperation and collaboration.

Economic development is not one of those things you can do it by going at it alone. It takes partners being at the table. It takes people engaging and working in a solution oriented way. And I think what I've taken so far in my trip here to Arkansas, spent some time this morning over at Shorter community college, listening to the work that they're doing there in North Little Rock, and everybody's talking about collaboration, solutions and getting things done. So I've been excited the past day or two.

Clint O'Neal:

Great. Well, I read your bio, very accomplished with your education background, with your professional background. Tell us how you got connected with the Delta Regional Authority and that journey that led you to where you're at today.

Corey Wiggins:

Yeah, no great question. Anytime I read my bio or people read my bio and I listen, the thing I always go back to is my upbringing and my family growing up in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a town of about 4,000 people, but I grew up nine miles outside of that town. I often say that my journey begins in and to some extent ends, with my experiences of growing up in the community I did. If you can imagine any country road here in Arkansas and driving down the road and just taking in the beauty of all of rural Arkansas and much like the community I grew up in and you go down this road and it opens up a little bit and you may see a couple of family houses and see a church next to that house. That's where I grew up in. That's what I grew up around.

And so when I think about my journey, I am of that generation, and I said this, sharing with some folks, I'm of that generation who have jumped around and moved jobs every three or four years. My parents' generation, my dad stayed on a job for almost 30 years and retired and was able to provide wonderfully for our family. But I've had an opportunity working the Mississippi state legislature. I served as a senior vice president at Hope Credit Union, Hope Enterprise Corporation, former college professor. All these different things. But I think my journey around to where I'm in today is really serving the people where I grew up in, that communities like Hazlehurst, Mississippi that exist all across our region. And so that's what I show up with each and every day to do this work of economic development. That's what I focus on to ensure that communities are engaged in a way to see places thrive and be vibrant and just maintain all of the culture that rural communities across our region have.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, you certainly bring passion to the job and that's greatly appreciated in Arkansas and across the eight state Delta Regional Authority. Today we want our audience to walk away with a better understanding of DRA. We're going to be talking about some of the opportunities for partnership and how DRA has impacted communities in Arkansas, specifically in eastern Arkansas. But before we do that, can you give us a level set, brief explanation of the Delta Regional Authority as an organization?

Corey Wiggins:

Yeah, DRA is a federal-state partnership amongst the eight states that we do our work in. Those states includes the Black Belt region of Alabama, parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Southeast Missouri, Western Kentucky, and Southern Illinois. And what makes us, I think, not only just unique but nimble. And I think, as a agency, also effective is the collaboration amongst our states, between myself as federal co-chair, my co-chair is governor Ivey from Alabama, the designees, people like yourself, Clint, who are there representing the interests of not only the folks of Arkansas, but the people of our region and making sure that we are champion our region across the country and furthermore internationally.

And so the way that we do our work is through grant making. Our grant making work really fits into a couple of different categories, basic public infrastructure. So water, sewer, transportation, small business development, workforce training and development, but also some of our programming we do around health and trying to support rural healthcare systems. And finally, but definitely not least, investing in people through our leadership Institute, Delta Leadership Institute that we've operated now for a number of years where you can't even begin to quantify the impact we have [inaudible 00:07:40] investing in people across our region.

Clint O'Neal:

Dr. Wiggins, what would you say is the area of biggest economic development need in the Delta and how does DRA help with that?

Corey Wiggins:

Yeah, well, I mean, I think the thing is, is that our region, the region that we cover, is unique in a lot of different ways. We have port communities along the Mississippi river. We have places like urban corridors, like New Orleans, Memphis, and Little Rock. We have places that are coal country, like in Western Kentucky and Southern Illinois. We have, all across our region, agricultural development, investment farming. And so I think because of our uniqueness, it actually positions us in a way to figure out and leverage the assets that we have and tailor them in each community way they need to be tailored to benefit or to maximize our opportunity. So I think one of the things that I've talked about open all the time with DRA is that we are going to take a values-based approach of listening and engaging people in our community.

So when we think about the work here in Arkansas, being here in Little Rock today, going to visit Shorter College, spending time at the conference today, spending time in Pine Bluff tomorrow – it really us as an agency an understanding of the unique needs and challenges that exist, recognizing that a place like Helena needs may be different from North Little Rock or Little Rock, or are different from the needs that may exist in Jonesboro, but all of those needs exist. But I also know that each community has their own special, unique set of assets. It is the job of DRA, I think, is to use our power to convene, our power to engage a broad sector of public and private stakeholders, including federal government, state government, local businesses, philanthropic community. How do we leverage our investments, which we do grant making work in those areas, but our money is not going to solve the problems and issues that a lot of communities are facing.

It could be part of a solution with broader stakeholders involved and engaged. And I think our work and the work in front of us is doing more of that. Leaning harder into it and centering the leaders in our communities, the leaders of this state. So we can be in lock and step with them to execute on those plans.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, that's good. And the communities that have interacted with the Delta Regional Authority have certainly been impacted and speak highly of DRA. For those that are not as familiar with DRA, Arkansas Inc. Podcast listeners around, community leaders, economic developers, those that want to engage more with DRA. How would you encourage people to plug in?

Corey Wiggins:

Well, look, first I'll say this, at DRA we have an open door policy. You can go visit our website at DRA.gov, Learn more about our programs, learn more about the people that is doing work here across our region. Learn more about what we're investing in. We are starting to engage a lot more in telling the story of our region, helping to support the story that's being told of the great and amazing work that's happening around development in Arkansas.

Another way, people can email me directly at [email protected] I am personally trying to engage with all those stakeholders that you mentioned, Clint, to hear and listen to understand what we want to do is make sure that we are being responsive to the needs of our region, connecting to people. And we can't do this work without leaders in these areas of economic development, telling us both what we're doing wrong... Well telling us what we're doing wrong, so we can improve. Telling us the things that we're doing so we can do more. So those are the things that we want to be able to hear. And we love to have open input from folks.

Clint O'Neal:

That's great. What are some innovative economic development efforts in the DRA region? Any examples come to mind, whether it be in Arkansas or one of the other seven states?

Corey Wiggins:

It’s interesting. Sometimes I think we talk about innovation in a way where it’s this thing that's just far out there. And we don’t always recognize that the innovative things that are just happening right there in our community. A couple of things, when I think about some things that's happening in Arkansas, that we've at least been a part of. I always start and cannot lift up, more, our Leadership Institute and the people who are from Arkansas, who are leading in their communities, who are leading in economic development space. People like you, who are champions of DRA because I always start with an investment in people first. Secondly, one of the things that we are really excited about is engaging people in our region around workforce development. We have engaged a lot of communities around alignment to workforce development opportunities, particularly some of the community colleges and thinking about how do we connect to sector strategies?

One of the things that I often talk about in our workforce development training, it is not enough for us to say, "Hey, we want to train the workforce," but we can train all the workforce that we want if we're not training people to connect to actual jobs as being created in our communities. So working with our community colleges and working with folks in Arkansas and helping to think about that. One of the things too, is that we have made investments in various communities like in Jonesboro, some of the other Arkansas Delta communities, around basic public infrastructure projects, roads, bridges, work to address issues around flood mitigation. All these pieces, ultimately for us, is the things that I'm excited about or the type of projects we're excited about. And one of the things I'm excited about Clint, is our ability to do more. And I know we got a lot of things in front of us and a lot of opportunities in front of us to even do more. It can make even bigger and deeper investments across the Arkansas region and the DRA region here.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, that's right. Well, Dr. Wiggins, you have a health policy background. This came up a few minutes ago in the Q and A portion of the conference. Tell us about how this impacts the way you think about economic development in some of those areas that DRA works to impact that area.

Corey Wiggins:

Well, look, I have spent a lot of time studying, teaching, practicing public health. And I am one of those folks who are from that public health policy background is say, if you ask me, how do we make our communities healthier? How do we support and to grow life expectancy? My answer tends to be all right, we need to focus on folks being able to access good jobs. The lot of the things that we experience nowadays, and from a health behavior standpoint, from a health impact standpoint is based upon the resources and the zip codes in which people live in. And if we take a very broad approach in which how I think about and how I, in my career, sort of gotten into this space of economic development, because economic development in itself takes a broad approach of how can we impact and improve quality of life factors in a community?

How do we take communities and make them more livable? How do we create access to health? How do we improve the educational opportunities or access to opportunities to support families, to support community? All of that is economic development. All of that is health. All of that is healthcare. And so I think part of my background and my experiences in that allows me to take a very broad approach. So the reason that I preach and talk about collaboration, the reason I highlight the collaborative relationship that we have with you and the state of Arkansas and with our other states, is that very broad view is actually what is going to help us get towards results. And I'll just use the old public health analogy, which is the story about these two fishers, two fishermen who was fishing and babies started coming down the stream and they jump in and they pulling babies out the stream.

And one guy jumps up and started walking. And he was like, well, where are you going? I’m like, I'm going to stop the person who's putting the babies in the streams. So I think our work together, focusing and thinking about economic development a broad way, allows us to move upstream, to talk about not only how we create vibrant communities, but help create healthy communities at the same time. And as you can hear Clint, this is something I get excited about talking about. I enjoy it. And it's just, for me, this is all mission work. It is all about serving the folks of our region.

Clint O'Neal:

That's good. Well, you've talked about investing in people. I know a large part of that for DRA is the Delta Leadership Institute. Can you tell us more about what it's like to go through DLI?

Corey Wiggins:

Look, if you think about all the metrics that we think about in economic development, money, investment, talking about our ROI or return on investment. When you look at metrics like jobs created, jobs retained, dollars leveraged, all those metrics that we use to evaluate the worthwhile of a project. You can't evaluate investing in people in that way. And we often talk about wanting to invest in sustainable projects. To me, there's nothing more sustainable to invest in than investing in people and the impact people can have in their communities and where they live. DLI is an opportunity, is a way that we do that at DRA. And, I think, the folks and team who have worked for a number of years with DLI cannot be commended enough. Our team at DRA, who continues to operate that program cannot be commended enough because you can't evaluate the complete impact of it.

Yes, I can tell the story of the number of people who've been in... who's been through DLI, our alumni network of over 600 folks connected across our region. Like all those things, the metrics, but each and every person who's touched our program has had a direct impact in the communities they live in. That is a program that I hear often about from alumni, from people in our region. So we're just excited to be able to support that type of opportunity across our region.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, that's good. I'm the interviewer today here at the podcast, but I'm also a DLI alum. So I've experienced that for myself. Just the incredible opportunity to hone in leadership skills from the professional development standpoint, but more importantly, the networking that comes along with that, the opportunity to learn from leaders and communities across that eight state region and how they've overcome challenges, that's been very impactful to me and several Arkansans. So Dr. Wiggins, you've been with the Delta Regional Authority for a short time now, but what would you say is any proud moments or anything that you've accomplished so far in your time?

Corey Wiggins:

Well, I mean, I'll say this, I think I have a number of aha and proud moments, but one thing that sticks with me right now is that so recently we just wrapped up some of our program around…it is a partnership program that we work in partner with department of defense. And is it an amazing program that we have, and I'll lift it up for two reasons. One is, it was an opportunity for us to bring a lot of different services and partnership with department of defense to our communities, our servicemen and service women go into partnership communities and provide whether it could be medical services, it could be cyber security, it could be any number of things, at no cost to the residents. This summer, we were able to execute those programs in Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois, in Carbondale, but also parts of Southeast Missouri  and the boot heels.

And I remember going to... And by the way, what we talking about a metric, those three programs provided medical services, dental, optometry, behavioral health services to residents totaling up to 1.2 million dollars at no cost for residents in that region. So you're talking about a metric and meeting a need around healthcare, but we're revisiting our community, Houston. In Houston, Missouri. And we have staff that live across the region. Matter of fact, we have two staff members who live here in Arkansas doing the work of DRA. But I remember one of our staffers, as I arrived in the Missouri, who said, Mr. Chairman, welcome to my community. And that has stuck with me. And it stuck with me, and I think it is evident even today, being here in Little Rock, being here at the conference today, visiting Shorter, visiting Pine Bluff, being and having time with our team members here in Arkansas is that the welcoming that I have gotten from people in this region, from people in Arkansas, has been amazing and it has been genuine.

And I think the genuine connection, it has been this idea of how can we work together to improve our community, to improve my county, to improve my town, my neighborhood, and that in itself has stuck with me in every place that I've gone into. And I've spent a lot of time in a Delta, both Mississippi Delta, Arkansas Delta. The other thing, and I'll leave it with this Clint, too, the other thing that's exciting to me that’s kind of funny. I was driving up yesterday through the Arkansas Delta, and this is what makes our communities so alike and our places so common folk, I hadn't been to a Delta yet that I hadn't drove through at nighttime and my windows hadn't gotten eaten at with bugs and Delta bugs. But that's the fabric of who we are. That's just our communities, our places, our people, our common kinship. And it's something we could talk about and laugh with. And then we can the next minute have a conversation and getting down to business and doing the work that we all been here, put here to do.

Clint O'Neal:

That's great. Well, chairman Wiggins really appreciate your time today. Going off script for this last question. We're moving into the fall season. A lot of people are excited about football, any predictions you'd like to make? High school, college, NFL?

Corey Wiggins:

Well, see, that's one of those set up questions. So, all right, so quick thing. I know I'm in Arkansas. All right. But I will say this. I actually attended college at Alcorn State University, where I started off on a football scholarship, as a matter of fact. I played offensive line at Alcorn which is the school of Donald Driver and Steve McNair. So I am a big supporter of SWAC football, which includes UAPB. But now I did my graduate work also at UAB, so Conference USA school, but I also did some work at the University of Alabama. That's one of my degrees as well. So that's the SEC. So I touch all three. And I'm going to say all that to say that I have no predictions. I set up that I think Alcorn will have a good season. I'm looking for some good SEC football to come out. I'm just looking for good football on Saturday. So I'm going to take the political route on this, right? I'm going to give you my answer with a non-answer, but I'm hoping to see some good football this fall.

Clint O'Neal:

Well, that's great. We'll all be tuned to Alcorn. I think as soon as you said, Alabama, all of our listeners from Arkansas turned off the podcast.

Corey Wiggins:

Well, look, I get it. When I was over there in school there, people would ask me Alabama or Auburn? And all I would say is Alcorn. So that is the safe route. I'm going to pull off my alma mater and I'm pulling for good football on Saturdays. And I prefer, I'm a big college football guy. I just love college football, high school football. That's just what I enjoy.

Clint O'Neal:

All right, well, that's great. Thanks again.

Corey Wiggins:

Appreciate it.

Clint O'Neal:

I've been talking today with Dr. Corey Wiggins, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. Chairman Wiggins, thank you for making time to visit with me today. You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clint O'Neal, deputy director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. You can subscribe to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. For more information about AEDC and to sign up for our monthly newsletter, visit Arkansas edc.com and connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks for tuning in.