Phillips County, which has been singing the blues musically and economically for years, has unveiled a development plan to counter negative perceptions rooted in poor race relations, dilapidated storefronts and high unemployment.
Promoting the blues is part of the proposed solution. “Historic Helena” would be a cross between Williamsburg, Va., and Branson, Mo., allowing tourists to experience the region’s culture in a “blues light district” and tie in a trip to a Mississippi casino.
“The two-mile corridor between the Mississippi River bridge and downtown Helena is an important first impression tourists will have of the community and this impression must match the historic theme adopted by the community,” the report said.v
The first of 46 strategic goals listed in the report says the community should convert the corridor to a historic park and greenspace with Civil War cannons, historic markers and hiking trails.
Other items include renovating the Sonny Boy Music Hall into a blues studio, develop an American music museum and establish a Delta Center for Traditional Southern Arts and Crafts.
More major tourist events along the line of the King Biscuit Blues Festival and Wild Hog Rally are needed, too, the study said. Marketing should be coordinated with Mississippi casinos, it suggested.
“Obviously, Phillips County is one of the most economically distressed communities in Arkansas, and the nation,” Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said in an interview after attending festivities surround the study’s release. “We talked about this five to 10 years ago and we said there has to be a plan. There has to be a road map of where you want to go.”
According to the study, Helena-West Helena – a new city to be created by the upcoming merger of two cities – should become a regional hub, as Little Rock is for central Arkansas and Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers-Bentonville is for northwestern Arkansas.
“It is the vision of community residents in Phillips County that Helena-West Helena achieve this status and becomes an economic and cultural force throughout Southeast Arkansas,” the study says.
The Strategic Community Plan was developed after meetings with local residents to develop an overall community vision. Residents said they wanted a good education for their children, jobs for themselves and their kids and a safe, nurturing and attractive community.
The study touts the region’s history, culture and low cost of living as its strengths, but says racial issues, the general appearance of the community and high unemployment are drawbacks.
The area’s population has dropped 35 percent since 1970, mainly because of increased mechanization on farms and a general economic downturn. “Additionally, racial issues and political tension have historically created an environment that is not conducive to new business development,” the study said.
Lincoln said the community must be willing to step forward.
“The past holds good memories and bad memories. If they want to successful in the 21st century, they’ve go to move beyond that,” she said.
Last week, the Phillips County NAACP filed a lawsuit challenging the Jan. 1 merger of Helena and West Helena, saying it would dilute black voting strength.
The strategic plan covers the period 2005-2010.
Accompanying the study’s release was an announcement that developers would build a $1.3 million apartment complex to replace substandard housing in West Helena. Replacing poor housing was one of the strategic goals.
The 46 goals were accompanied by 190 specific items on which action will be taken, said Steven Murray, the chairman of a steering community and chancellor of the University of Arkansas Phillips Community College.
“This is not a plan that reports on what should be done to revitalize Phillips County, but rather a step-by-step plan of what is, and what will be done,” he said.
The plan was funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
The report also cites plans for a sweet potato distribution center, higher academic test scores, mentoring programs and a local health-education center.
Phil Baldwin, president of Southern Bancorp, said some money is on hand to fund projects and that the community would seek money through grants, governments and private contributions.