After being appointed to the Delta Regional Authority by President George W. Bush in 2005, I began making weekly trips from my home in Little Rock to Clarksdale, Miss., where the DRA has its headquarters. During those four years, I watched the leadership of Clarksdale transform what had been a down-and-out downtown to a tourism destination that attracts blues enthusiasts from around the world.
I left DRA in 2009. A decade later, downtown Clarksdale remains a work in progress. Due to strong economic headwinds, success doesn't come easily in either the Arkansas or the Mississippi Delta. But Clarksdale keeps adding overnight accommodations, shops and restaurants that cater to those searching for an authentic blues experience.
I'm asked to donate something to a charitable auction from time to time. I usually donate a guided trip from Little Rock to Clarksdale and back. We eat barbecue, catfish and tamales during the 12-hour adventure and see the sights. My guests invariably are enchanted by Clarksdale.
That town is filled with people like Bubba O'Keefe, who recently was named executive director of the Coahoma County Tourism Commission. He has devoted much of his career to reviving downtown Clarksdale.
A profile of O'Keefe in the Delta Business Journal noted: "He has built lodging accommodations like The Lofts at the Five & Dime and the Sunflower Lofts. And he has helped place businesses such as Yazoo Pass, Hambone Art & Music, and Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in vacant buildings downtown. Long before Juke Joint Festival festivities ever hit the streets of downtown Clarksdale, O'Keefe opened a visitor center inside the Greyhound bus station."
Blytheville has an almost identical Art Deco-style Greyhound station. Whenever I think about what Clarksdale has become, I also think about what Blytheville could be.
"We're blessed with a lot of cultural and historical assets that, for me growing up here, I didn't know about fully," O'Keefe told the Delta Business Journal. "When I found out exactly the extent of our importance, it blew my mind. I was thinking, 'How could we sit on this treasure and not share it with the world?' We're stewards of this gift of history. And as stewards, Deltans can either use this gift in a way to help their towns grow or they can exploit it and try to make a dollar off of it."
In last Sunday's column, I wrote about Andrew and Erin Carrington, a couple in their 30s who have purchased almost 35 storefronts in downtown Blytheville. They have dreams for the downtown of this once-prosperous city, which served as a regional trade center back when Mississippi County was the leading cotton-growing county in the country. Downtown Blytheville was a place that attracted vaudeville entertainers and blues musicians as sharecroppers and tenant farmers flocked there on Saturdays.
There's history here. There's a core of buildings ripe for renovation. And there's a large trade area that includes parts of Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel. Get the right mix of restaurants and entertainment venues and watch as downtown Blytheville comes back to life.
The Carringtons revived one famous business, That Bookstore at Blytheville, now known as the Blytheville Book Co. They're working with a business partner to open a distillery that will produce bourbon in the former Franklin Printing Co. building. It could be ready for its first visitors by the end of September.
"People here would get behind on their property taxes and sell buildings," Andrew says. "Because they were cheap, there would be buyers. But those buyers wouldn't have the money to properly develop them. We must find a way to break that cycle. We're really not that far from Kentucky. I can see a day when this could be the intersection of a bourbon trail that runs from here to the north along with a blues trail that runs from here to the south."
As we walk along Main Street, Andrew further outlines his vision.
"There could be a fine-dining venue in the old First National Bank building over there," he says. "The building was constructed in 1923 and was the first place we purchased down here in 2014. I've met with some Memphis developers about it. Down the street, you could have something like a Doe's Eat Place. There's an empty lot where we could park food trucks. We could put a juke joint in and use the lot next door as an outdoor patio. There are also buildings that would be good for things like yoga studios."
When I speak about economic development, I always tell civic leaders to play to their towns' strengths. In addition to its history, a strength of Blytheville is the fact that it has more good barbecue restaurants per capita than any city in Arkansas. I proclaimed it the Barbecue Capital of Arkansas in a 2012 column.
The Dixie Pig's roots go back to 1923 when Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin. In 2009, the book America's Best BBQ declared that Dixie Pig has the top barbecue in the country. There's also the "pig sandwich" at the Kream Kastle on North Division Street. There's Benny Bob's, Yank's and the trailer in the parking lot of the Hays grocery store.
I could see downtown Blytheville hosting Arkansas' largest annual barbecue cookoff. And, yes, there's even talk of bringing back the once-famous Penn's Barbecue in a new downtown location.
Some describe those who see downtown Blytheville as a potential dining and entertainment draw as dreamers. The same could be said two decades ago of O'Keefe and those like him across the river in Clarksdale. Sometimes dreams come true.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 08/14/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: Dreaming in the Delta