Every year since 2008, Congress has authorized more than $30 million in funding to spur economic development in a region referred to as the “Black Belt.”
The region extends through seven states from Virginia to Mississippi and includes the largest concentration of historically black communities in the rural South. Most are economically deprived, a result of slavery and Jim Crow laws.
There are more than 50 Virginia counties that could benefit. But the money never came. Now, one Eastern Shore woman is on a crusade to get it.
Back in the 1990s, Ava Gabrielle Wise was part of a team that helped lay the groundwork for the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission. It was modeled after the 1965 Appalachian Regional Commission that has boosted economic development in that part of Virginia.
But last year, Wise discovered the Southeast commission existed only on paper. "I got pissed," Wise admitted. "We could have had half-a billion dollars in investment and all that half-a billion dollars could have leveraged for all of those states, all of those communities for job creation, infrastructure, broadband, recruitment, entrepreneurship, business loans, workforce development and training to increase your labor pool, all of the things that are necessary to make a region more competitive."
Wise, a lifelong community activist, did what she's always done. She drove for a 12 day, seven stop tour to light a fire under communities and their members of Congress and governors in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Veronica Womack, who worked with Wise, is now executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College and State University. She hosted Wise's forum in Georgia where community activists spoke up. "They're not interested in a program or you know, some little, bitty thing. No, they want something that is is going to allow them to transform," Womack said. "They were talking about the broadband, the physical infrastructure, innovation stations and hubs. These are rural people, but they recognize that's where the jobs are."
At every stop, Wise said people asked, “Why hasn't the commission received its funds?” One answer – the Senate never chose a federal co-chair for the President to appoint to the commission. A must for money to be released.
But its sister commission, the four-state Northeast Border Regional Commission, created at the same time has a federal co-chair and issued $55 million in grants. Wise says the Southeast Commission needs political champions. Rich Grogan, chief of the NBRC, agrees. "I've spoken with some of the congressional members who were around at that time and they told me they doggedly pursued it. They felt that this was a real need and they didn't just introduce the legislation, they chased it up and made it a priority," Grogan said.
Elaine Meil is executive director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Even though Accomack is home to Governor Northam, that doesn't mean money flows in. Meil says grants from the commission would go to broadband, upgrading septic systems, among other pressing needs on the peninsula. "This area has many economic needs," she said. "As a peninsula we often don't get things first. We sometimes are the very last to get something when we're at the other end of the state."
Most of what Wise heard from the "Black Belt" communities on her tour was many of the same needs back home. Even though $30 million divided among seven states doesn't sound like much, Meil says it is. "It doesn't take a lot of money to get something really powerful going. If you want to develop folks, you have to give them an opportunity."
Wise said she was able to get the ear of congressmen and state governments in most of the seven states. "I've traveled for hours on bad roads with bad infrastructure with no cell phone service," she noted. To keep that momentum she is already planning a second round of meetings this spring.