The room is packed at the Meadowbrook Country Club in West Memphis on this Thursday night for the annual banquet of the Marion Chamber of Commerce. I'm the speaker, but there's no need for a pep talk. Everyone, it seems, is already in a good mood.
Many Arkansans associate the Delta region with economic doom and gloom, but that's not the case these days in Crittenden County. A new hospital recently opened in West Memphis, and an expanded library will follow. On Sept. 10, West Memphis voters approved a millage increase for the local school district. More than 80 percent of those voting supported a 7.5-mill increase that will be used to construct two junior high schools.
Much of the optimism is driven by the massive amounts of money being spent by Southland Casino Racing on its curent expansion. As state Capitol reporter Michael Wickline reported in this newspaper last Sunday, those playing games at Southland wagered $3.2 billion in state fiscal year 2019. That was far higher than the $2 billion wagered at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs.
Arkansans outside the Delta tend to think of Oaklawn when they talk about casino gambling in the state. They don't realize that Southland has been the go-to spot for gamblers in the Memphis market since a devastating flood along the Mississippi River in 2011 forced lengthy closures of what at the time were the nine casinos at Tunica, Miss. Memphis residents figured out that it was much quicker to get to West Memphis than Tunica and just as fun. Since that flood, three of the nine Tunica casinos have gone out of business. I expect more of them to bite the dust once Southland completes its expansion.
"Central Arkansas is not attuned to it over here," state Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis told Wickline. "They don't realize the impact that Southland brings to the table."
Glen White, a spokesman for the company that owns Southland (Delaware North), says the business last year attracted "more than 3.3 million guests and had an economic impact of more than $148 million, including payroll, taxes and charitable contributions. The majority of guests came from the Memphis market."
Once Southland completes a 20-story hotel, it's expected to attract overnight guests not only from the Memphis area and east Arkansas but also from northern Mississippi, southern Missouri, western Kentucky and southern Illinois. Southland now has 2,025 electronic machines and 40 live table games such as blackjack, craps and roulette. The expansion will add almost 400 machines and another 20 table games.
"We're confident that we'll see double-digit percentage annual growth over the next few years," White says.
The casino expansion is expected to be completed by next summer. The hotel will open at the end of 2020. With the addition of a high-rise resort hotel on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, other attractions being planned for Crittenden County and Mississippi County to the north will receive a boost. If all the plans come together, there will be thousands of additional visitors to east Arkansas each year.
In Marion, funds are being raised for a large museum devoted to the Sultana, the Civil War-era steamboat that exploded and burned on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. About 1,200 of the 2,100 passengers and crew were killed when three of the boat's four boilers exploded, sinking the ship near Marion. It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history and is described by author Andrew Carroll as "one of the 10 greatest forgotten events in American history."
The Sultana was designed to carry 376 passengers plus crew. Bribes were paid to high-ranking Union officers in charge of shipping former Union prisoners of war back north. That caused the overcrowding. The disaster received little national attention, though, due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the search for his murderer.
Marion already has a small Sultana museum. A former school gymnasium has been offered by the Marion School District for a 14,500-square-foot museum. Fundraising is ongoing.
In Mississippi County, visitor numbers continue to increase at Dyess following Arkansas State University's restoration of the Johnny Cash boyhood home. Dyess Colony was created in 1934 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Almost 500 poor farm families from across Arkansas moved to the agricultural resettlement community, including Cash's family from Kingsland in south Arkansas.
ASU does a good job of telling the Cash family story along with the story of such resettlement colonies and the role they played during the Great Depression. A visitors' center is at the former site of the Dyess theater. The administration building next door houses exhibits. Visitors are shuttled from there to the Cash boyhood home, which is less than two miles away.
At nearby Wilson, one of the largest landowners in America continues to create a model Delta town. Gaylon Lawrence Jr.--who owns banks, citrus operations and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland--bought much of the town and farmland from the Wilson family in 2010. He has since added to Wilson a first-class restaurant with a chef who moved from Memphis, an upscale store curated by the daughter of entertainer Hank Williams Jr., a private school and more. Overnight accommodations soon will open above the buildings on the town square. Price seems to be no object for Lawrence.
As Kim Severson wrote in The New York Times: "The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards. Wilson was once the most important company town the South."
A bit further north up Interstate 55, a determined group of civic and business leaders at Blytheville is trying to create the National Cold War Museum at the former Eaker Air Force Base. The group has set a fundraising goal of $20 million to establish a nationally known attraction. They've identified a building at the base that will be used for an initial exhibition while money is raised to transform the Strategic Air Command's former alert center. There's even talk of creating a National Cold War Center that would contain extensive archives, host lectures and provide housing for visiting scholars.
In downtown Blytheville, meanwhile, Erin and Andrew Carrington have purchased 35 storefronts with plans to revitalize the neighborhood with a bookstore, distillery, restaurants and entertainment venues.
"Things are starting to change in Blytheville," Andrew Carrington says. "We're recruiting retailers and restaurants rather than just doing industrial development. ... Now we're seeing people our age move back (the Carringtons are in their 30s), restore homes and take over businesses."
Think about it: Visitors to Arkansas may one day be able to stay in a resort hotel at West Memphis while spending several days visiting the Sultana Museum at Marion, Dyess Colony, the old company town of Wilson and the National Cold War Museum at Blytheville. There will be great places to eat and quality places to shop along the route. We're talking upscale accommodations and first-class attractions that will attract families with money to spend. So much for the Delta blues.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 09/22/2019