Every year at the end of May, leaders from rural communities around the state gather for the Rural Development Conference to attend workshops and panel discussions about issues unique to small towns.
At this year’s conference, which was in Little Rock, Rural Services handed out 54 competitively awarded grants worth a total of $736,000. Among the grants are $4,000 to the Grant County Fair Association to build a new livestock show barn; $13,000 to Big Flat in Baxter County to purchase five sets of self-contained breathing equipment for firefighters; and $65,000 to Calhoun County to build a 62-foot bridge and to elevate County Road 3 to prevent flooding and erosion.
For those counties and towns, these are real needs that impact safety and the quality of life.
But to appreciate the positive impact of these grants, we can look to the city of Marvell, which has received two similar grants in the past several years from the Delta Regional Authority, a different program with the same aim – to help struggling rural communities.
With the first grant, Marvell retired its dilapidated water tower and installed a new tank that supplies water to the town.
Now, the town is wrapping up its second project, the rehabilitation of its sewage system, which it paid for with $800,000 from the Delta Regional Authority.
In Marvell, the deteriorating pipes sent raw sewage into the ground and filled ditches. Septic tanks at many older homes had caved in and contributed to the problem. Sometimes, especially after a big rain, the sewage would back up into houses.
Barbie Washburn, who has been office manager for the Marvell Water Department for 34 years, said the situation was more than an unpleasant inconvenience. The raw sewage was a threat to the health of the 11,000 residents. And that’s just inside the city limits. Another 1,000 people outside the city limits suffered with the same problem.
To make things right, the city laid miles of pipe, connected all the houses to the city system, and replaced a couple of pumps. Now, some people have city sewer service for the first time in their life.
A year after Marvell received the money, the project is complete except for some cleanup.
The local economy and a few Marvellites enjoyed another benefit from the infusion of money when the city hired them to work on the project.
Barbie said the improvement is a huge blessing to residents, who now no longer have to worry about where their wastewater is going.
The Rural Development Conference ended Thursday afternoon. The city and county leaders have returned to their rural communities ready to fix things up, and they have the money to pay for it.