One of the most encouraging trends in Arkansas is the renaissance of downtowns that have been in decline since the 1970s. It was in the '70s that big-box retailers began replacing downtown merchants. It's also when the move "out to the highway" began in cities across the state.
In some of the communities where such efforts are bearing fruit, wealthy individuals and families are driving the change.
In Bentonville, Walton family interests have transformed downtown through the efforts of entities ranging from the Walton Family Foundation to the RopeSwing Hospitality Group. In El Dorado, the Murphy family and connected corporations are building on earlier downtown initiatives with the Murphy Arts District. In Wilson, multimillionaire investor Gaylon Lawrence Jr. of Nashville, Tenn., is creating a model Delta town.
Just north of Wilson, downtown Blytheville resembles far too many other Delta towns. A majority of the storefronts are empty. Buildings are boarded up and falling in.
That's about to change if Erin and Andrew Carrington have their way. The Carringtons aren't to be confused with the Walton, Murphy or Lawrence families. While not poor, they certainly aren't at that level. And they're in their 30s. What they lack in wealth and experience, they make up for in grit, imagination and determination.
Erin grew up in Mississippi County. Her family has deep roots in the rich soil of a place where agriculture dominates the economy. Andrew hails from the Philadelphia area and met Erin when they were attending the same prep school.
Andrew came to the mid-south to attend Rhodes College in Memphis, married Erin, helped run her family's cotton ginning operation and started a trucking firm known as Delta Cartage at age 29. The couple even bought a few houses to lease to those who came to Blytheville as part of the Teach for America program.
As agriculture became more mechanized and Eaker Air Force Base closed, Blytheville watched its population fall from a high of 24,752 in the 1970 census to an estimated 14,000 residents these days.
"It's kind of like the old story of putting a frog in a pot of water and raising the temperature slowly until it boils," Andrew says. "People here didn't realize just how bad it was because it happened over a period of 50 years. It didn't occur overnight."
As a newcomer, Andrew was shocked by what he saw. But he also was intrigued by the potential and the history of what once was a regional center that hosted businessmen and entertainers from across the country. Blytheville had been quite the cosmopolitan place.
Rigel Keffer writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "For much of its history, Blytheville had a thriving Jewish community. Several early Main Street merchants were Jewish. Lawyer Oscar Fendler practiced here. The congregation that would become Temple Israel formed in 1924 and settled into its building in 1947. . . .
"The Ritz Theater opened in the early 1900s and has seen multiple owners, fires, name changes, expansions and renovations throughout its decades on Main Street. A popular stop for famous vaudeville performers traveling from Memphis to St. Louis in the early 20th century, the Ritz later became one of the first theaters in Arkansas to present talking pictures. The Ritz was fully renovated in 1950-51 and hosted a television lounge where many Blytheville residents got their first glimpse of the new medium.
"Blytheville lies along U.S. 61 of music fame. Generations of blues musicians passed through Blytheville as they traveled from Memphis north toward St. Louis and Chicago. The 1932 Greyhound bus station at 109 N. Fifth St. is one of the few surviving Art Deco Greyhound stations in the United States."
The bus station is on the National Register of Historic Places. So is the old Kress Building downtown.
Andrew was appointed to the city's historic commission. Meanwhile, Erin won a spot on the school board by two votes. They had decided to get involved in efforts to revive Blytheville. They didn't expect to be involved this heavily with downtown, though. It all began with a bookstore.
In the 1970s, as the rest of downtown started to decline, Mary Gay Shipley opened what would later become That Bookstore in Blytheville. Hundreds of authors visited Blytheville through the decades, and TBIB gained a reputation as the best small-town independent bookstore in the country. Shipley retired in 2012 and sold the store. It passed through two more owners and closed in 2017.
The Carringtons decided that Blytheville couldn't be without its best-known business. They purchased the store, changed its name to Blytheville Book Co. and moved it to larger quarters a block down Main Street.
We're in the store on a hot Thursday in July, and I can't help but think that this is like something you would expect to find in a much larger city. The building, which once housed a lumber company, has its original shelves. The tables that have been brought in were once used to grade cotton. The Carringtons based the book selection and placement on what's done at Sundog Books at Seaside in the Florida panhandle, a store that's popular with tourists from Arkansas and other Southern states.
Books aren't the only things that can be found here. There's a bar where beer, wine and specialty coffees and teas are served. There's a growing collection of vinyl records. There are toys in the children's section.
The bookstore opened at this location last November. A wealth manager is expected to soon move into the empty space next door. The next step is to develop 7,500 square feet upstairs into between seven and 10 apartments in order to have a residential component downtown.
Andrew pulls out a color-coded map of the nine blocks that comprise the historic district. I ask him how many buildings he and Erin have now purchased.
He hesitates for a moment and then says, "About 35 storefronts."
Some of those buildings have no roofs. Others are just brick facades. As I walk up and down Main Street with the Carringtons, it's apparent that they've given lots of thought to what these spaces can become. Andrew notes that urban lots with facades have been transformed into restaurant patios along Beale Street in nearby Memphis.
"Things are starting to change in Blytheville," Andrew says. "We're tracking down absentee landlords. We're starting to see more events at the Ritz. We're recruiting retailers and restaurants rather than just doing industrial development. When I came here, it seemed that there was a gap of people between the ages of 35 and 50. They had all gone to Jonesboro. Now we're seeing people our age move back, restore homes and take over businesses."
Much has been written about the growth of the steel industry in Mississippi County. The problem for Blytheville is that many of the workers in those mills drive in each day from the Missouri Bootheel and Tennessee. The Carringtons believe that a restored downtown will help convince them to live in Blytheville.
"These buildings downtown have second floors that could become apartments," Andrew says. "There's so much that can be done, but it's like chipping away at an iceberg. The problems are multigenerational. Still, you have to start somewhere."
The Carringtons have met with developers and potential investors from Memphis to Little Rock. They remain hopeful that others will see what they see along what at least for now are the deserted streets of downtown Blytheville.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 08/11/2019