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Ari's angst.

Ari's Angst

Ari Merretazon has never been afraid to take the conventional wisdom and turn it upside down.

The conventional wisdom views community economic development in a paternalistic sense, especially as it relates to impoverished areas such as the Arkansas Delta.

The conventional wisdom says communities should stick out their hands and hope the federal or state government will come forward with a grant.

The conventional wisdom believes community leaders must go outside the state's borders and search for some giant industry that will heed the siren song of tax breaks and cheap labor.

"This method does not involve the common people at all," complains Merretazon, a Little Rock-based private consultant who heads the Institute for Community Economic Development. "Everything comes from the top down. If an industry decides to leave, the people are left without hope."

The conventional wisdom preaches paternalism. Merretazon preaches self-sufficiency.

He's quick to criticize.

Quick to criticize the legislative program Gov. Clinton presented earlier this year: "It included little in the area of real community development. The focus was still on bringing in outside industries and thinking they will solve all the problems."

Quick to criticize businesses in the Delta: "I realize their primary goal is to make money. But they must understand it is in their best interest to help to community in which they reside."

The gospel according to Ari Merretazon says that saving the Delta begins by stemming out-migration and instilling in people the desire to get off welfare.

Who is this man preaching self-sufficiency?

He is a native of Washington, D.C., who came to Arkansas in March 1980 to serve as community education coordinator for Central Arkansas Legal Services. Fourteen months later; Merretazon left for Philadelphia. He returned in March 1984 at the request of civil rights legend Daisy Bates. His job was to revitalize the Arkansas State Press, the state's largest and oldest minority-oriented newspaper.

Merretazon left journalism in August 1987, but he fell in love with Arkansas.

"I'm an Arkansan now," he says. "And I'm committed to building the state."

Merretazon worked as an independent consultant to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation with a focus on home ownership. The task, he says, was "to convince people they don't have to rent their entire lives, no matter how poor they are."

He also worked with the Levi Strauss Foundation, evaluating the programs in Arkansas and Mississippi funded by the philanthropic organization.

Preaching, Teaching

Merretazon not only preaches. He teaches.

He taught at Arkansas State University's Center for Economic Development in Jonesboro and was one of 15 people nationally to receive advanced training from the Lilly Endowment Inc.

Earlier this year, Merretazon was chosen to serve on the steering committee of the National Association for Community Leadership's Community Trusteeship Project.

Suddenly, he had a national forum for his sometimes unconventional views on economic development. Merretazon shared those views last month at a conference in Indianapolis. Another speaking engagement is planned for Denver next month.

Merretazon directed a continuing education project at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff known as the Delta Community Economic Development Studies Program. The courses, sponsored by the ICED, may soon be taught at Little Rock's Philander Smith College.

Merretazon says the program trains community leaders to change their perspective on what development really entails.

His master's thesis at the New Hampshire College Graduate School of Business was on new ways of looking at economic development. His goal: to create a corps of people in the Delta skilled at revitalizing towns and countries.

The UAPB courses were launched in March 1990 with the aid of a $10,000 grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

If Merretazon has his way, Delta communities will forgo traditional social welfare and economic development strategies in favor of what he sees as a more effective long-term approach.

"We do not accept students who have no notion of what they want to do in their communities," he says. "We want them to take what they learn in the classroom and put it into action."

These community activists can come from small businesses, cooperatives, credit unions, investment groups, land trusts and even churches.

In essence, Merretazon wants to transform consumers into producers and employees into owners of various enterprises. The enterprises might simply consist of people working out of their homes or raising vegetables in their back yards for market.

By it's self-sufficiency.

Regardless of the venture, the emphasis is on local ownership and control.

"The problem is that people in the Delta don't know where to start," Merretazon says. "They know what they want, but they don't know how to achieve it. That's why we have to train local leaders."

Traditional Policies

He is upset that the entire focus in the Delta is on traditional social welfare policies. These policies attempt to alleviate the suffering of the poor through housing subsidies, medical care and food stamps. While such programs make life in poor communities more bearable, they rarely transform poor communities into economically healthy ones.

By the same token, traditional economic development strategies are designed around the principle that what depressed regions need is an infusion of capital from an outside institution such as government or industry.

The belief is that community development is accomplished by giving tax incentives to a corporation which, in turn, will provide jobs and income.

"Both the traditional social welfare and economic development models assume residents are incapable of making appropriate decisions concerning the allocation of resources for their communities," Merretazon says. "Most government officials seem to believe that residents don't really know why their communities are poor and what it will take to develop them.

"These models have been pursued for decades by government at every level. They have not worked in the past, and it follows that they will continue to fail in the future. If economic development planners want to make communities less dependent and more self-sufficient, they must address structural and institutional factors."

In the Delta, efforts have been hampered by:

* An absence of educational, technical and financial support.

* The relative isolation of local efforts.

* An absence of institutions providing training and technical assistance.

"Delta businesses must encourage self-sufficiency as opposed to counting on outright philanthropy for their communities," he says. "Every Delta community should have a strategic plan for the next 10 years.

"What we've heard so far is the voice of the politicians and the voice of the Delta Commission. Who are they talking to? Companies based in New York or California? What we've yet to hear is the voice of the people."

PHOTO : DELTA BLUES: Little Rock's Ari Merretazon is upset that the focus in the Delta is on traditional social welfare policies. Those policies attempt to alleviate the suffering of the poor through housing subsidies, medical care and food stamps.

PHOTO : SELF-SUFFICIENT: Ari Merretazon, a Little Rock community development consultant, preaches the gospel of self-sufficiency. Merretazon has never been afraid to question the conventional wisdom.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Ari Merretazon's criticism of Arkansas Delta community development programs
Author:Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 26, 1991
Previous Article:What's up with Hunt?
Next Article:Melvyn Bell's latest bind.

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