JACKSON President Clinton evidently got the right guy when he named George E. Irvin in 1993 to head the troubled Farmers Home Administration in Mississippi.
Irvin’s appointment was significant in itself because he was: 1. the first black to ever head the FmHA, and 2. he was the first director to come out of the ranks of the agency with knowledge of, and experience in, its operation.
The FmHA job had always been treated as a political plum, handed out by the state’s U.S. senators to political friends. The political appointee system went particularly sour in the 1980s when a series of Republican operatives, recommended by Sen. Thad Cochran, had to be removed from the job for gross incompetence or scandals in the rural housing loan program.
One high official in the Mississippi FmHA was indicted for taking bribes on low income housing loans. And one of the directors, Don Barrett, was chased off after making $9 million in loans to his brother-in-law’s secretary and girlfriend in Houston, Texas.
Since Irvin took over three years ago, there has not been a smidgen of corruption in the agency, which a year ago was named the RECD (Rural Economic and Community Development) agency. The agency is still under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Under Irvin’s leadership, the Mississippi agency has brought a whopping $600 million in loans and grants into the rural economy of the state, leading the nation in the amount of rural development loans and the number of recipients.
The crowning jewel of Irvin’s administration has been operating the Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone program, coupled with the related Enterprise Communities program. Both were created by the Clinton administration in August 1993.
Mississippi is one of only three states with a high level of rural poverty designated to have a rural empowerment zone. Because Clinton, as former Arkansas governor, was quite familiar with the economic problems of the Mississippi Delta, inherent from the displacement of cotton field workers over the years, the Delta got high priority when the program was created.
Its overall objective is to create jobs and rural business enterprises in the Delta zone and provide incentives for private business investment to create employment opportunities in the local communities.
Over the past few months over $8 million in low interest loans and grants have been made in the six counties included in the Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone for entrepreneurial enterprises. Among them have been $2.8 million for a catfish farming operation start-up in Belzoni, and $1 million to Leflore County for business enterprise grants.
Irvin recently handed to the president a photographic book giving a snapshot of the developments created in he Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone. “The president didn’t just hand it to someone else, he kept it with him to look at,” Irvin said.
A performance audit by a 10-member committee sent in by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has just been conducted on Irvin’s agency and it came through with flying colors. When the agency was last given a peer review, just before Irvin took over, the reviewing committee found the agency had “problems.”
Last year Irvin was selected among all state RECD directors to receive the top award for improving the quality of life in rural Mississippi. He was also recognized for his encouragement of civil rights within his agency.
As a result of governmental reorganization overseen by Vice President Al Gore, agriculture credit lending no longer comes under Irvin’s agency, but is now assigned to the Farmers Services Agency, formerly known as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. However, Irvin has picked up the functions of the former Rural Electrification Administration, which has been abolished.
Right now, Irvin is in the throes of downsizing his agency, consolidating 82 county offices into 53, and reducing his work force by almost 50 percent by next year.
Proudly, he says, “I run a non-partisan administration,” not favoring members of any particular party, “just Mississippians.”
A large part of the $600 million in low interest lending his agency has done since 1993 has gone into rural housing for low income families, rural water systems and sewer systems. Also RECD funds are going into health care facilities, including nursing homes, and soon there will be hotel and recreation loans.
Irvin, who turns 46 in April, is a lieutenant colonel in the Mississippi National Guard, flying helicopters. But he’s proudest of what his son, George Jr., has done in he U.S. Air Force. After graduating near the top of his class at the Air Force Academy in 1993, George Jr. is now a “top gun,” flying F-15Es. In June the young man is getting married, but a stint in Bosnia also looms in the picture.
The senior Irvin, whose wife is a teacher in the Jackson Public Schools, strongly advocates that all young men and women serve their country in some form, be it in the military or other national service.
Coming from the little town of Tylertown, Irvin has gone on to earn a B.S. degree in agriculture from Mississippi State University and added an M.B.A. degree from Jackson State University in 1991. Now about to round up 20 years in federal government service, George Irvin is certainly no garden variety government bureaucrat, thank you.
Bill Minor, a syndicated columnist, has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.