Arkansas Democrat Gazette

By Chris Bahn

Honestly, Matt Inman has no idea what sort of financial reward might be generated by the three buildings he now owns on Cherry Street in Helena-West Helena.

Inman, a 27-year-old native of the Phillips County town, lives in a downtown apartment above a building he renovated last year. Below him is a nearly 1,900-squarefoot space that he hopes to market as a possible coffee shop or restaurant location. Since finishing that building, he has purchased two additional properties on Cherry Street with plans of turning them into retail and residential space paid for with his own money and grant funding from Southern Bancorp.

This is far from a get-rich quick plan for Inman, who is doing much of the renovation work himself. As anybody who has done even minor renovation work on a home or business knows, it is not an easy commitment.
“I’m not doing this for me, as much as I am for generating some energy in this town,” Inman said. “I’m not going to get rich off this thing, but as long as there is one less building that is decrepit and in need of repair, then I’m happy.”

In the 18 months that followed Inman’s first investment, he estimates that as many as eight additional nearby properties have sold. The 2010 University of Arkansas graduate doesn’t take or want credit for the flurry of activity but notes that other investors and potential investors are likely encouraged to see a local who is willing to do more than just talk about the future of the downtown.

Inman is a bit of an oddity, especially for someone his age, in that he left Helena-West Helena for college and then chose to return. Out-migration has been a crippling reality in the community, and far too often the city’s most promising young residents have decided to leave and not return. Population in the once booming river town has declined 50 percent over the past 50 years and now sits around 12,000.
Certainly, it helped that Inman had a job with a retail chemical company lined up in addition to a family farming operation. When returning to the city to visit while in college, he often heard residents express hope that a downtown revitalization would occur.

“I decided I really wanted to be the person that did come back and give it a shot for a while,” Inman said.

Others, aided in no small part by Southern Bancorp, are giving it a shot as well. Southern Bancorp has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in downtown renewal grants, startup funding and low-interest loans this year in Helena-West Helena. That is in addition to $200,000 worth of incentives earmarked for the creation of 32 full-time jobs in career fields as varied as service and manufacturing.

If you’re reading this in Fayetteville, Jonesboro or Little Rock, adding 30-something jobs to the economy might not sound like much, but its importance in Phillips County cannot be overstated.

Grant money and loans have been going out for years, but Brooke Gerber, project consultant at Southern Bancorp, tells me there’s a growing sense “that there is progress and the rubber is meeting the road.” Southern Bancorp has earmarked $400,000 in Riverside Renewal grants for 2014, including $200,000 to Cathy Campbell, who owns Handworks with her husband, Rick, and is opening the women’s clothing store Bella with other investors on Cherry Street.

Naturally, how much progress this all signals depends on whom you talk to in the community. Some will argue that actual victories can’t be declared until leases are signed. Others caution that historically black parts of town are at risk of being overlooked and the Cherry Street revival will widen an existing divide.

Lack of attention to Walnut Street, in particular, is a concern.

From Inman’s perspective, the flurry of activity on Cherry Street is encouraging for a number of reasons. Based on what he has seen in his building over the past two weeks — it’s been home to a temporary coffee shop that we’ll explore in more detail in another article — Cherry Street is truly a place for the entire community.

This is where Inman is seeing some reward from his investment, the sort of motivation that led him to push through a stringent grant process and convinced him that the personal financial risk made sense.

“I went in the other day, and I knew one person. One person,” Inman said of entering the coffee shop. “It was multicultural. It was exactly what I envisioned.”

If you have a tip, call Chris Bahn at (479) 365-2972 or email him at
cbahn@nwaonline.com