HELENA-WEST HELENA – It’s one of those deadly hot days in the Mississippi River Delta, the kind that gave the region’s famed blues musicians more reason to shuffle and moan.
Only a handful of people walk the downtown streets. One woman among them shouts as she hurries into an air-conditioned building: “Not a good time to visit the Delta.”
But visitors are what this town is counting on to keep from vanishing into the past, especially visitors who come and stay.
The nonprofit Southern Financial Partners arrived seven years ago and stayed, leveraging more than $60 million to help residents revitalize their 174-year-old river city. Lawyer Bernie Crowley returned home after taking a job in Atlanta and is preparing to open a biodiesel plant.
Michael Boone returned home, went to work for Southern Financial as an economic developer, and was re-elected city treasurer two years ago. His lifelong friends, Terence and Latoya Harris, opened up the Bistro Bar and Grill this summer, one of the few places in town offering an alternative to chain-food restaurants.
“I like it here,” says Terence Harris, 31, who also runs a barber shop across the street while Latoya operates a beauty salon. “If you set any kind of goal and push it, you can make it here.”
In 2003, after years of infighting among government officials and racial distrust, city and county residents sat down to set goals for their community. Hundreds of residents participated in more than 500 meetings over a year and a half and developed a plan to save their job-hungry communities.
Aside from specifics, they adopted one overarching goal: “By 2010, Phillips County will be a model community for the Delta, one that is economically strong, spiritually enriched, and demonstrates equality among its people.”
With two years to go, one can walk along Cherry Street downtown and see the plan take shape. Historic buildings have new roofs and a gift shop is open for business; another one will open in the fall. A couple of cafes are open and a new Little Biscuit Recording Studio caters to local talent. A local businessman has plans to open a deli and a community workshop where carpenters and craftspeople can share equipment.
Workers are building loft apartments above a new state revenue office, and down the street crews have unearthed old gasoline tanks and cleared the ground for a new Court Square Park to include a farmers market and a “cultural history plaza.”
Nearer the river, experienced guide John Ruskey of Clarksdale, Miss., has opened Quapaw Canoe Co. He offers guided and self-guided tours by canoe or kayak on the Lower Mississippi. Visitors can stop at Buck Island for a day hike, to fish or birdwatch, or can camp out overnight. Ruskey also makes canoes and teaches young apprentices the business.
Directly or indirectly, the goings-on in this east Arkansas county grew out of the Delta Bridge Project, an initiative involving the Walton Family Foundation and Southern Bancorp bank-holding company. The company’s Southern Financial Partners provides the guidance and expertise for community members to carry out their goals.
“I think this is what they’ve done very, very well,” says community development expert Bo Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center in Starkville, Miss.
Hired by the Walton foundation to evaluate Southern Financial, Beaulieu says community developers typically find, in rural areas, groups fragmented by race, class, income, and educational levels. But Southern Financial has managed to achieve “buy-in,” he says, that intangible quality in which individuals take a personal interest in working together.
At this stage, Beaulieu suggests, Helena-West Helena should work on generating multiple jobs through many sources – small businesses, entrepreneurs, the self-employed, and online enterprise – rather than banking on one large manufacturer coming to town.
Mayor James Valley is of like mind. He says 10 businesses with 10 employees each is as good as one company with 100.
“We’ve been trying to hit a home run, and I just think we need to bunt to get to first base,” Valley says.
Valley has been the mayor of Helena-West Helena since two distinct cities merged into a new one in 2006. Where once racial divisions straightjacketed government operations, the mayor and a majority black council have worked together.
“We’ve had very few racially divided votes and there probably was no animus attached to it,” Valley says. “They (council members) really have a good spirit of cooperation and good give and take. I haven’t been one to push the button and say ‘it’s got to be this way.”‘
Since 2006, the new city has paid off about a $1.5 million debt leftover from the previous communities and has paid delinquent bills from the Internal Revenue Service and utility companies. It reopened a regional landfill after bringing the facility up to code and added police officers, firefighters and street workers to the payroll. Voters passed a 2-cent city sales tax.
“At least we don’t owe anybody,” Valley says.
Valley has been a controversial figure at times. This summer he ordered the release of stray dogs into a nearby national forest. Valley said the city had received numerous complaints that the animals were suffering from neglect in a makeshift shelter. A Humane Society member obtained a warrant for Valley’s arrest, and the mayor later apologized for “this mess” but insisted he’d done no wrong.
Also this summer, the American Civil Liberties Union in Arkansas threatened a lawsuit after the mayor and city council authorized 24-hour curfews, enforced by heavily armed police, in high-crime neighborhoods. The mayor said the emergency measure was necessary to protect lives, and dismissed the ACLU’s concerns.
“I invite them to move in on Second Street and be up all night with people shooting at them,” Valley said. “That’s my comment to them.”
While the mayor makes news for a day, Helena-West Helena is known year-round for its blues festival. The October event attracts some 80,000 people, more than five times the city’s population. It is the largest free blues celebration in the country.
“King Biscuit Time,” the longest-running daily radio show anywhere, airs on local station KFFA. First broadcast Nov. 21, 1941, the show is hosted by “Sunshine” Sonny Payne. Payne turns 83 in November. He first started at KFFA when he was 16 and the show featured live performances by blues legends Sonny Boy Williams and Robert Lockwood Jr.
“We all just feel like there’s so much history there,” says Californian Virginia Burroughs, who visited the city three years ago while on a steamboat cruise and ended up buying an entire city block. “There is so much charm. And even the music alone is enough to make the town stand up and cheer.”
Burroughs, 83, a retired banker, says she didn’t know the town was distressed when she bought the property. But as she took ownership of the historic Magnolia Hill Bed and Breakfast, put in a formal garden, and opened up the 1925 Solomon House to weddings, reunions, and birthday parties, she noticed “kind of an excitement.”
Drive into the county and pass by Arkansas Delta Yams. The new plant provided storage and distribution services to sweet potato farmers and has plans to expand. The building includes space to cure, wash, grade, pack and ship sweet potatoes. In less than a year, the operation has improved the incomes of the five growers who use its services and has created about 30 jobs with an annual payroll of more than $300,000.
The area population dropped as the nation’s economic base shifted from agricultural to manufacturing to services. From 1970 through 2000, Phillips County lost a third of its population. And of the 24,107 people who remain, more than a quarter live in poverty.
South of town, Crowley and Delta American Fuel LLC are testing elaborate equipment from Australia, Indonesia and Thailand to convert soybean oil, animal fat or both into fuel. Crowley says the $25 million biodiesel plant will produce about 40 million gallons a year and employ about 20 people. His grandfather and a Phillips County farmer started the venture.
Although some risk is involved, Crowley says he prefers the business to practicing law. “I would drive a tractor now if it paid anything,” he says.
At schools throughout Phillips County, a $2.3 million initiative to saturate teachers with support, training, and equipment is showing promising results in higher test scores. In town, the six-year-old KIPP Delta College Preparatory School has expanded its so-far-successful program into higher grades and is building a new gymnasium and high school.
In May, the Helena-West Helena School District moved off the state’s fiscal distress list, although student enrollment continued to decline. With some 200 students leaving over the last two years, the total has dropped to 2,800.
Still, state-appointed Superintendent Rudolph Howard says the district is doing much better after staff aligned business management practices with state requirements, did an inventory of district assets and worked harder at public relations.
“We are in the black and in good stead,” Howard says.
Sept. 16, voters go to the polls to decide a property tax increase to fund a new $21 million high school building.