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HELENA-WEST HELENA — Recognizing that Helena and Clarksdale, Miss. have a lot in common in terms of their heritage, history, and music, Delta business and professional leaders gathered here Wednesday to devise a strategy to enhance tourism and economic development for the sister cities.

The midday session at the Delta Cultural Center’s Depot was arranged through Southern Financial Partners with Joe Black as senior vice president.

Black noted that SFP operates several Southern Bancorp banks in Mississippi including one at Clarksdale and others in Sunflower County in addition to Helena and other Arkansas locations.

Black told the group that through the Delta Bridge Project’s strategic planning a “lot of similarities” have been found between Coahoma County, Miss. and Phillips County, Ark.

“Tourism helps both of us,” Black said. “The primary purpose to introduce one another is that there is a mindset to work together.”

Black said SFP had a significant investment in the Mississippi Delta and particularly Coahoma County and is working to “create an investment” in Phillips County.

“Coahoma County is beginning its strategic planning involving music, heritage and tourism,” Black said. “It would be mutually beneficial to work together.”

With tourism as the thrust of the program, Black cited Civil War Tourism, Music Tourism/Festivals, Eco-Tourism, Main Street and Chamber promotion activities.

Black suggested that those present conduct a joint meeting on a quarterly basis.

Other SFP leaders attending the meeting were Tim Schuringa, senior community development coordinator, and Cathy Cunningham, whose many roles include chairperson for the Helena-West Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission.

Munnie Jordan, executive director for the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, and Bernadette Messina, the ABHF fundraising co-coordinator, addressed the impact that festivals have on the two communities.

Jordan and her corps of volunteers are in the home stretch for the 25th annual festival set for Oct. 7-9 in downtown Helena. B.B. King, the Indianola native whose worldwide acclaim was capped some years ago with a museum in his honor at Indianola, will be the festival headliner with a performance Oct. 7.

Ron Hudson, executive director of the Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce; Kappi Allen, director of the Coahoma County Tourism Commission, and Wayne Winter, the commission’s board president, were also in attendance.

Allen noted that Clarksdale’s Sunflower River Festival held last weekend and the ABHF “complement one another” and generates revenue for the two Delta counties. Allen called partnering “a good start – whatever that will be.”

She noted that the Coahoma County Tourism Commission is a member of the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association that stretches from Desoto County near Memphis to Vicksburg.

“It’s (the association) is a huge partnership,” Allen said.

Allen, whose busy schedule includes trade, shows nationwide to promote Clarksdale, pointed to Roger Stolle as one of a major catalyst in spurring tourism in the past decade.

Stolle, owner of Cat Head in downtown Clarksdale, created the Juke Joint Festival that brings tourism for its April weekend musical show.

M.A. “Mac” Crank, who is involved in the revitalization of Clarksdale, said Stolle had done a “dynamite job.” Other Mississippians in attendance were Wayne Winter, the Coahoma County Tourism Commission board president; Luther Brown of Cleveland, associate dean for Delta Regional Development; Lois McMurchy, who works for Southern Bancorp at Clarksdale, and Pat Davis Jr., a Coahoma County Tourism commissioner.

Davis, whose family started Abe’s Barbecue in 1924, said the Sunflower Festival and the ABHF draw considerable business to his eatery as well as to other merchants. Davis said he and his wife frequently shop in Helena-West Helena.

When Joe St. Columbia Sr., whose many roles include Helena-West Helena alderman, A&P commissioner and member of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, asked who is Coahoma County’s No. 1 ambassador, the name Morgan Freeman sprung forth.

M.A. “Mac” Crank, the man behind the push to revitalize Clarksdale, cited other potential tourism possibilities noting that the late Conway Twitty was born in Friars Point, Miss. and grew up in the Arkansas Delta.

“There’s a lot of interest in country/western music too,” Crank said.