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It's my March tradition. I go to Hot Springs to watch state high school basketball championship games for two days. I attend the Friday games, spend the night at the Arlington Hotel, have a big breakfast at the Pancake Shop on Saturday morning and then watch the Saturday games before heading home.

While I was at the games this spring, someone in the row behind me asked if I could visit for a few minutes. It was Jon Estes, the superintendent of the Palestine-Wheatley School District in St. Francis County. Estes grew up in far south Arkansas at Bradley in Lafayette County. He was the superintendent of the Drew Central School District near Monticello when he accepted the Palestine-Wheatley job a decade ago. Estes didn't know much about the Delta, but he understands rural Arkansas. He knows that for a small community to succeed, its public schools must improve.

The school districts at Palestine and Wheatley consolidated in the 1980s. The Palestine Red Devils and the Wheatley Pirates had been athletic rivals, but students soon learned to play together as Palestine-Wheatley Patriots. Like most Delta communities, Palestine and Wheatley struggled to maintain their population base. Wheatley had a population of 355 in the 2010 census, down from a high of 523 in 1980. Palestine had a population of 681 in the 2010 census, down from a high of 976 in 1980.

I look for success stories in the Delta. Estes thought I might be interested in seeing what's happening at Palestine (a place he likes to call the Holy City). I agreed to spend a day there once summer arrived and Estes had more time to show me around. I made good on that promise last month.

Palestine was named in 1870 when the first post office opened. Some say the community got its name from a sawmill employee who was killed in an accident. Others say the first postmaster selected the name from the Bible. Palestine was incorporated in 1889 as businesses moved in along the busy Rock Island Railroad lines. By 1905, there were five general stores, two grocery stores and a drugstore.

"The school, like others in the Delta, was facing declining enrollment, poor test scores and a declining annual fund balance when I got here," Estes says. "With the help of what I consider the best teaching staff in the state, and under the direction of the best school board, the district turned all of that around. We now bill our district as the Diamond of the Delta."

The Palestine-Wheatley School District has gone from about 535 students when Estes arrived to more than 800. All of the schools are now in Palestine, a move Estes says Wheatley residents bought into. To handle the influx of new students, Estes bought metal buildings in Yazoo City, Miss., that had been used to house evacuees following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The district has purchased 60 acres along U.S. 70 on the west side of town, and construction will soon begin on a $20 million high school. A new elementary school opened in 2013.

People like to live where there are quality schools. That's why it didn't surprise me when Estes said there's a subdivision being planned near the new high school. He even showed me where the concrete has been poured for a skating rink. When's the last time you heard of a skating rink being built anywhere?

He shows me C.R. Smalls, the abandoned parts house that Cindy and Roger Smallwood transformed into a restaurant that attracts customers from Forrest City to the east and Brinkley to the west. There's a Dollar General Store nearby. Estes says the parking lot is full at all hours. Triple G Excavating Inc. has expanded in recent years. Just down U.S. 70, Burt Swiney is known by the locals as Barbecue Burt. He transformed his food trailer into a small restaurant.

"His food is so good that people would sit outside and eat it on cold days when there was nothing to cut the wind," Estes says. "So he built a structure to seat those loyal patrons."

Estes also mentions the growth of Standridge Heat, Air & Electric Inc.

"Max Standridge bought an old metal shop and moved operations to Palestine," Estes says. "He's somewhat of a hero around the school because he air-conditioned the weight room for our football players."

There's also the once-abandoned gas station that has been reopened as a modern Valero convenience store. I'm used to seeing empty buildings in the Delta. You don't see much of that at Palestine.

We head downtown for the highlight of the tour. The Hurd family operates a Forrest City construction company. They've now bought most of the downtown area. Josh and Brandy Hurd and Josh's parents (Randy and Ladonna Hurd) are involved in the operation. They took an empty service station and renovated it for their Crazy Donkey Grill, which serves everything from steaks to pizzas to Mexican food. They then reopened an adjoining car wash. That's not to mention Boondocks Down South or their adjacent furniture store.

"Boondocks is the kind of place where you can dress yourself for duck hunting, for a college football game or for Easter Sunday services," Estes says. "They have everything from hunting equipment to fragrance candles. The Hurds also renovated a grocery store that had been closed for almost 20 years. They sell reclaimed furniture out of there. This is top-of-the-line stuff that's shipped all over the country."

Across the street from the furniture store, Littlefield's Grocery is still going strong.

"It's a country store that has stood the test of time," Estes says. "You can buy anything from a chain for your bathtub stopper to a choice steak to Arkansas watermelons in the summer. And they still deliver groceries to people's homes."

Ladonna Hurd tells me about the hundreds of people who now converge on downtown for holiday parades and other special events. Brandy Hurd tells me that the Crazy Donkey was named for Domino, a donkey on their ranch who can always be counted on to "add a little extra crazy to our day."

Their enthusiasm for what's going on here is contagious. There's a sense of promise, something missing in too many rural towns. Palestine got it right. Instead of chasing industries, its leaders focused on improving the public schools and revitalizing downtown. If those things are done right, the rest follows.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 08/12/2018

Print Headline: Promise at Palestine

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