Like the rest of the Delta, Clarksdale and Coahoma County are struggling with a troubled economy, but residents also feel the area is better off than many other places in the nation. With renewed excitement in Downtown Clarksdale, a strong tourism industry and numerous educational opportunities creating a strong workforce, Coahoma County has much to offer.
Though still feeling the loss of Delta Wire in 2009, Director of the Clarksdale and Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce Ron Hudson remains focused on recruitment and retention.
“We do see signs of activity and things picking up,” he says. “It seems like we might be punching through the other side of this recession.” Hudson is seeing some prospect activity, and he hopes those become fruitful and start adding manufacturing, distribution and similar types of employment opportunities.
In preparation for this, Hudson is currently working on upgrading available properties to have a better product to offer. This includes improvements in the Sunbelt Industrial Park which now has water and sewer throughout and natural gas tie-ins. A road extending through the property will be added this spring.
One incentive Hudson says the area offers is property at a more reasonable cost. Add in an available workforce praised by the local industries, and the proximity to Memphis with four-lane access that ties into I-69, and it makes the area very attractive.
Additionally, Coahoma County has a Class-1 railroad on the east side of the county and the Mississippi River to the west. Hudson feels there are opportunities to link these two assets together in the future, making for another great recruiting tool. “You don’t find many small towns anymore that have a railroad,” he says. “This one is owned by the county and operated by Mississippi Delta Railroad, a private operator.” In the future, Hudson expects more and more products to travel by rail.
Clarksdale Mayor Henry Espy presents optimism in the face of the recession. The city’s anticipated sales tax revenues are $220,000 short of projections, but he’s banking on the blues and tourism. “Clarksdale is the home and the birthplace of the blues,” he explains. And tourism is up, thanks to blues clubs, restaurants, festivals and unique places like the Shack Up Inn that received a mention on the Jay Leno Show.
Willis Frazer, chairman and CEO of Covenant Bank, pointed out an exciting partnership happening in the area. “A small group of businessmen from different sectors and races have come together to form the Delta Bridge Project with Southern Bancorp out of Arkadelphia and the Walton Foundation,” he says. “We feel like this is a first major step that we must take in this Delta town to hopefully build up the economy, improve downtown revitalization, improve race relations in all areas including education, and work to put Clarksdale and Coahoma County back on the map where it deserves to be.”
At Covenant Bank, Frazer and President/COO Freddie Britt are helping to improve the local economy by assisting with borrowing needs ‘if the shoe fits.’” He also noted that Skip Graeber has taken over as president of the industrial foundation, working with existing businesses as well as seeking out new industrial prospects.
Local businesses feel the insulated environment of the Delta protects them somewhat from the country’s chilly economic climate. Rob Tyner at Luckett Tyner Law Firm says the firm is doing well. “We’re fortunate the national economy has not had a negative impact on us,” he explains. With three attorneys, the firm has an additional office in Sumner. Its focus is on insurance defense litigation, plaintiff cases, land transactions and other general areas. “We hope to continue to succeed and service our clients, provide the legal representation they need and stay focused on that,” says Tyner.
Tyner explains that one of Clarksdale’s assets is its inexpensive real estate when compared to other areas of the country. Add that to the people, the way of life, proximity to Memphis and Ole Miss, and recreational hunting and fishing and Tyner says it all adds up to a nice quality of life.
Russell Bennett, president and CEO of First National Bank, describes his financial institution as an independent community bank with a niche market in the Mississippi Delta. Dedicated to providing quality financial services to its customers, the bank also has a commitment to its 60 employees, stockholders and the community. “If the bank does well, we all do well,” Bennett says.
With 40 percent of its business being agriculture-related, the agricultural community and its stability is important to First National Bank. “Ag is a big part of what we do,” Bennett says.
Additionally, the bank is involved in the renovation of downtown Clarksdale through state and federal historic tax credits, where the developer receives funds from the buyer to assist in the renovations. “I would just as soon invest in my home community as opposed to paying taxes,” he says. “I’d like to see us improve what we’ve got.”
And Downtown Clarksdale is experiencing a renaissance. “Downtown is where it is,” says Espy. “Sidewalks, businesses, living quarters above stores, restaurants. Downtown is your hub of your city, the heart of your city, so you make sure the heart of your city is still strong.” Many buildings downtown are under renovation and grants have been written for sidewalks.
“It’s exciting to see people roaming the streets of downtown for good reasons and enjoying fellowship among one another,” says Frazer. Following the trend in downtowns nationwide, buildings are being purchased and renovated for downtown living. For example, Frazer says the old Woolworth’s building was renovated, added to the historic register and now boasts condos on the upper level with businesses offices below. “It will be a great addition to downtown revitalization,” he says.
Hudson says that the new restaurants opening in downtown Clarksdale have added a lot of traffic on the streets most nights of the week. Stone Pony Pizza opened last fall. “We’ve had a blast and fortunately business is good,” says owner Buddy Bass. “I did not know how risky it was until I opened it, but I guess I got lucky.”
He attributes a lot of the success to his young, energetic partner Rodney Boswell and manager and chef Matthew Joseph. Bass’ wife Kris also helps out with administrative duties.
Bass says he’s riding the wave of resurgence flowing through downtown. “The reception was incredible,” he says. “They’ve been very supportive. And the food happens to be fantastic.”
Adding more energy to downtown, Coahoma Community College partnered with Delta State University, the city and the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors to turn a former Catholic school into an institution of higher learning, says Espy.
The mayor also reported that the city is looking into a grant to replicate Greenwood’s successful Alluvian Hotel in Clarksdale’s renovated McWilliams Building, adding yet another tourism draw.
“This year has started off just about as busy for tourism as it could possibly be,” says Kappi Allen, Coahoma County Tourism Commission Director, who says there really isn’t a tourism ‘season’ anymore. “We have tourists year round now,” she says.
And those tourists come for the blues, but Allen is quick to point out that isn’t all the area has to offer. From the Mississippi River to Civil Rights, to the Civil War and literary history, Coahoma County has something for everyone.
Last year tourism was up (financially) two percent, which is not a large amount until it’s compared with so many other tourism offices that are seeing declines. “To stay level would have been wonderful, but any increase is something to be excited about,” Allen says.
One of the big draws is the annual Juke Joint Festival, set for April 16-17. Roger Stolle of Cathead Delta Blues and Folk Art is one of the driving forces behind the event. “It’s going to be just jam-packed with stuff,” he says. “We describe it as half Blues festival, half small town fair and all about the Delta.”
It kicks of Friday with the dedication of a Blues Trail marker at the former location of the historic KROX radio station.
For Blues tourists and fans, there are more than 50 Blues acts, mostly on Saturday, at six daytime outdoor stages.
There are 16 nighttime venues with 17 acts; a $10 wristband gets fans into all venues. During the day there are arts and crafts, a kids’ art show, storytelling, a petting zoo and family fun for those who aren’t blues fans.
One of the highlights on Friday are the “cowboy monkeys,” who ride herding dogs in a rodeo-type show. On Saturday, don’t miss the racing pigs. There will also be showings of Delta and Blues documentaries, so there is plenty of activity rain or shine, Stolle says. And there’s more music than people can see.
Stolle approximates that last year’s attendance was around 3,500 with people from 17 countries and 44 U.S. states. But it doesn’t end on Saturday night. On Sunday, Stolle hosts a free Blues festival at Cathead from 10 a.m. through the afternoon. For more information, call Stolle at (662) 624-5992 or visit www.jukejointfestival.com.
As education is one of the pillars of any society, Coahoma Community College works to meet the needs of its students and the community. Since its establishment in 1949, Coahoma Community College’s mission and goals have evolved to meet the demand of the communities it serves. “In recent years, enrollment has continued to climb in double digit percentages,” explains Dr. Rosetta Howard, vice president for academic affairs. The school currently serves more than 2,600 students with 49 university-parallel degree programs and nearly 30 career and technical programs.
Howard explains that the college’s enrollment growth can be attributed to the establishment of community relationships, partnerships with area businesses and industries, identifying the needs of the communities it serves, establishing and expanding programs, and ensuring access to educational opportunities.
Coahoma Community College’s partnership with Northwest Regional Medical Center and other local health care providers was established in order to develop and implement health care training programs that would help ameliorate the shortage of qualified health care practitioners in the areas of nursing and respiratory therapy. Adult Basic Education programs afford individuals the opportunity to earn a GED.
In an attempt to ensure access to educational opportunities, Coahoma Community College extends its educational programs throughout its five-county service area by providing classes in Bolivar, Tallahatchie, Quitman and Tunica counties. More than 50 percent of the college’s total enrollment takes classes at these sites. To further ensure access, the college offers online classes. “By providing these classes, we want to give individuals every opportunity to access higher education,” says Howard.
The college is also celebrating a 6-3 football season and a trip to the playoffs last fall. It was the first time the college participated in the playoffs since joining the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges in 1975. Head football coach Freeman Horton was named Head Football Coach of the Year by the same organization.
Coahoma is gearing up for its reaffirmation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC) with an on-site visit this fall. “It’s been a wonderful experience evaluating and assessing what we do and how well we’re doing it,” says Howard. She attributes much of the school’s success to its president, Dr. Vivian Presley. “She is a remarkable leader,” Howard says. “She has a vision of success.”