REX NELSON: Winning in Wynne

When I travel to a town for a business meeting or speaking engagement, I try to arrive early in order to drive around for about an hour. You can get a good feel for a place by simply observing. Are the streets maintained? Is there litter lining the main roads? Are there empty lots choked with weeds and debris? Has there been a focus on downtown revitalization, or is downtown marked by empty storefronts and cracked sidewalks?

It doesn't take long to figure out if people have pride in the place where they live. I was in Wynne recently to speak to the annual banquet of the Cross County Chamber of Commerce. As I turned left off Arkansas 1 to check out what was going on downtown, I discovered the road was blocked. And that was just fine. It was evident that there were streetscape improvements taking place. I knew immediately that I would be preaching to the choir that night.

During the four years I spent working for the Delta Regional Authority, my greatest frustration when interacting with business and civic leaders in the eight-state DRA region was the fact that many of them were stuck in the industrial development mode of the 1950s and 1960s. That's when recruiters from Arkansas and other Southern states would head to the Upper Midwest and the Northeast with this message: "Bring your factories to us. We have hardworking people down here, but we don't have unions. That means your cost of doing business will be far less."

Arkansas attracted lots of low-skill jobs at cut-and-sew operations, shoe factories and the like. That was a positive thing at the time. Those plants provided work for former sharecroppers and tenant farmers who no longer had a way to earn a living due to the rapid mechanization of agriculture following World War II. Those factory jobs are long-gone, and the edges of towns across this state are home to abandoned buildings that once housed the shirt factory or shoe plant.

Yet even in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, I find economic developers seeking grants so they can build an industrial park. They're still spending their time chasing smokestacks, searching in vain for that manufacturing facility that will never show up because the public schools are bad, the hospital isn't very good, the downtown is decaying, race relations are poor, and things like parks and quality restaurants are lacking.

I can name several dozen Arkansas towns that are on this path to nowhere, but I won't. I'll instead note that there are places like Wynne that get it. As I drove around town, I thought back to a lecture I attended at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock two years ago. The speaker was landscape architect Martin Smith, who restored a 1901 family home at Birdeye in Cross County and then set up his business in Wynne. He outlined a vision of using adventure and culinary tourism to bring life back to parts of east Arkansas. He talked about connecting the Crowley's Ridge towns of Harrisburg, Wynne, Forrest City, Marianna and Helena. His vision included a sustainable regional food system with small specialty farms, cycling routes using existing state and county roads, regional music venues, restaurants utilizing local cuisine, and outfitters for adventure tourism.

This part of Crowley's Ridge has yet to achieve that vision, but business leaders in Wynne never dismissed Smith and those like him as dreamers. In a feature on Wynne for Arkansas Life magazine, Heather Steadham wrote: "The Bank of Wynne building is one example of what Martin likes to do: help make Wynne both functional and attractive. Martin took this building, which had holes in the roof and was essentially unusable, and made it not only useful but beautiful with hardwood floors, glass transoms over doors and exposed brick peeking through plaster walls."

While much of the Delta has been bleeding population for 60 years, Wynne has seen its population grow from 4,922 in the 1960 census to an estimated 8,000 people today. Still, that's a drop from the 8,615 residents recorded in the 2000 census. The recent loss of residents has the folks in Wynne doubling down on quality-of-life issues such as downtown revitalization.

There also are efforts to find additional uses for Village Creek State Park. One of Arkansas' biggest celebrations during the U.S. bicentennial year was the dedication of the park in June 1976. Charlie Rich, a native of nearby Colt, performed before a crowd of 20,000.

Since then, 27 holes of golf designed by renowned course architect Andy Dye have been added. There are rental cabins, a 100-seat special events room, a gift shop and interpretive exhibits. The construction of Lake Dunn (named after Poindexter Dunn, who organized the first company from St. Francis County during the Civil War) and Lake Austell (named after Samuel Austell, the first county judge of Cross County) added fishing opportunities. Now the park, which covers almost 7,000 acres along Crowley's Ridge, must take advantage of the cycling craze that has hit Arkansas.

A plan for a privately operated lodge on the golf course at Village Creek fell through a few years ago, but I still think a small upscale lodge would generate revenue with proper marketing to golfers, fishermen, hikers, birdwatchers and cyclists in the Memphis and Little Rock markets. As Wynne looks to the future, it's yet another idea to consider.

Wynne already is a bit of a jewel in the middle of the declining Delta. Now isn't the time to rest on past accomplishments.


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 02/22/2020

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