- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Delta is a national treasure.

It officially has been federally designated the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, one of fewer than 50 such treasures spread across the United States, from frigid Alaska to sunny Florida.

“The National Heritage Area program was created specifically to highlight the multifarious culture that we call America,” said former Delta State University President John Hilpert

Hilpert was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant in 2012 appointed chairman of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area’s 15-member board of directors, before its clearing a final hurdle.

The U.S. Department of the Interior this month formally approved the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area Partnership’s exhaustive management plan.

Work on the steering document began in November 2011.

The comprehensive plan the group developed over the course of nearly two years and more than a dozen planning sessions conducted throughout the 18-county Delta.

The Department of the Interior, in signing off on the management plan July 8, brought to fruition a process that began more than a decade ago with an informal conversation between the newly named president of Delta State University and a professor there, a Chicago-area native who had held a fascination with the Delta long before moving here, Luther Brown.

By chance, 2003 had been proclaimed, by Congress and Mississippi’s governor, alike, the Year of the Blues. Brown was the founding director of the Delta State’s Delta Center for Culture and Learning

“I was named president of Delta State University in 2003, and Luther came into my office not long after to tell me about the National Heritage Area program,” Hilpert said. “It didn’t take him long to convince me as to its advantages for the Delta.”

Over the next six years, Brown worked with groups vested in the Delta, either through its culture, its economic potential or its scenic beauty and natural resources.

“The Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area has happened because of the efforts of lots and lots of people attending dozens and dozens of meetings,” Brown said. “We had anywhere from 50 to 100 people typically at each of them. We didn’t have to pull any teeth. There is a very widespread belief this will help the Delta thrive.”

The creation of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area - though it would still require the Department of the Interior’s sign-off on the comprehensive management plan - came about in March 2009 when President Barack Obama signed into law the enabling legislation.

The legislation had been sponsored in the Senate by Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker and in the House by Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson.

“I was able to help shepherd the legislation … and I look forward to working with the heritage area in the future,” Thompson said.

“I’d like to see the National Heritage Area highlight the Delta as the home of the blues, a critical agricultural producer, a focal point during the civil rights movement and a geographic treasure full of natural beauty and abundant wildlife.”

The Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area - which is organized as a 501c(3) nonprofit - has received just shy of $600,000 the past four fiscal years through the National Park Service program.

Matching funds have come from the Mississippi Legislature, which has given the effort $150,000 annually, and the City of Cleveland, which has contributed $25,000 a year.

Other financial help has come from donated services and related contributions, much of it from Delta State’s Delta Center for Culture and Learning, from which Brown will officially retire at the end of this month.

“Luther was the primary mover behind this and should get all the credit,” said Hilpert, who expects Brown will continue to play a leading role with the National Heritage Area, although a precise role has yet to be defined.

“He’s a resource we certainly don’t want to lose,” Hilpert said.

The federal heritage area designation could help alleviate some of the poverty in the Delta.

“I don’t want people to get false hopes,” Brown said.

He said he is convinced, nevertheless that the designation, and this month’s final approval, “will increase the number of tourists who will be spending money here on food and lodging, and they’ll want to consume local entertainment, and it will create demand for products produced in the Delta.”

“What we’re talking about is a gradual increase in the economy,” Brown said.

A study commissioned by the National Parks Service found that National Heritage Areas, combined, produce a $12.9 billion annual economic benefit on a $9 million-a-year federal investment.

Moreover, Hilpert said, “it will bring additional visibility to the Mississippi Delta, particularly with cultural tourism.”

“And it’s a way to preserve historic sites. It’s an opportunity to catalog those historic sites and how they fit into the story of the Delta and of the nation.

“It’s an opportunity to highlight the contributions that have been made in the Delta in the arts, in music, in literature, the list goes on.

“And it’s an opportunity for those who live in the Delta to celebrate where it is we live and to help them tell the Delta’s story to others. The Delta is a very special place,” Hilpert said.

Brown expects the collaborative and extensive effort that created the National Heritage Area and its approved management plan to continue unabated.

“Things are going to begin to move all but immediately, certainly by the end of the summer,” he said, regarding the plan’s implementation.

“First, there will be a symposium focusing on the Delta culture, and we’ll be working with the Mississippi Department of Transportation on signage announcing you’re entering a National Heritage Area, along the lines of the markers for the Mississippi Blues Trail.”

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Information from: Delta Democrat-Times, http://www.ddtonline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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