You can take Highway 67 north all the way from Little Rock to St. Louis, but the uninterrupted stretch of four-lane highway ends in Newport, and from there it is an older, slower road.
Lucky for me, Newport was my destination last Thursday, when I drove there to join a friend for a dinner marking the beginning of Portfest, the city’s major annual festival. It was a beautiful evening, and after eating fried chicken and ribs we walked the midway of the carnival grounds and it seemed like we stepped back in time.
In many ways, we had. Newport is emblematic of Arkansas Delta towns that are moving backwards, or at least standing still. The most recent city population estimate by the U.S. Census is 7,386, which is a little less than Newport’s count in 1990.
Newport is still doing better than many places in the region. There is a manufacturing base that accounts for about 14 percent of its workers, and of course agriculture is still a big business there.
But even having jobs doesn’t guarantee that a city will survive. Our improved roads allow people to commute to work, and Newport companies employ plenty of workers who live in places like Searcy. And that means money originating in Newport gets spent in Searcy.
In fact, Searcy’s population grew from 15,180 in 1990 to an estimated 19,714 in 2003. With that in mind, Newport’s long-term survival depends on addressing the reasons why people would rather live in Searcy, and it has as much to do with quality-of-life considerations, including cultural amenities and community strength, as it does with where the jobs are.
If you are a young person in Newport, there are few places to socialize, which explains the high levels of alcohol and drug abuse. It also explains why most of the younger population leave if they can.
Compounding that problem is Newport’s racial divide. Like many Delta cities, the town is not only segregated socially and residentially, but economically as well. Blacks and whites patronize separate stores, bars, and restaurants. The effect is that capital is not circulating, and Newport is not benefiting from the economic output that would be expected from a city its size. It might as well be two cities of 5,000 and 2,400.
All of this affects the city’s ability to attract new business, which will be necessary as manufacturing jobs continue to go overseas and the agriculture industry continues to consolidate. Communities with regressive social environments that can’t retain their most talented young people are not likely to receive consideration from the new generation of companies that need well-educated, forward-thinking workers.
What can cities like Newport do to create an atmosphere of community that makes people want to move there and stay there? It is already moving in the right direction by embracing its community college. ASU-Newport is expanding, thanks in part to support from local businesses, and it is well positioned to become a hub of cultural activity and educational opportunity for a city that lacks both.
Like many Delta towns, Newport has an architecturally interesting downtown that is largely vacant and decrepit. An initiative to renovate and revitalize that area could unite the community around an effort that highlights what is unique and historic about Newport. Similar programs are underway in places like Jonesboro and Conway, with good results.
Racial reconciliation — an admittedly elusive goal that is difficult to achieve fully — must at least be attempted. Ignoring the problem will ensure that cities like Newport never reach their potential. I didn’t see one black person at Portfest, and I was told the reason was that the country music concerts seemed to exclude blacks. The Confederate flag merchandise booths at the carnival probably don’t help. Those problems could be easily remedied, and making an effort to include the black community in the city’s largest event might be a good first step in the right direction.
Portfest takes place at Jacksonport State Park, which is located on the site of an important town that died shortly after the Civil War. Once the county seat and a major trading port, Jacksonport lost both distinctions to Newport because that’s where the railroad decided to lay its tracks. Now the life and death of a community cannot be explained or understood so simply.
Sitting on the grass, eating cobbler and ice cream as the sun set behind the White River, I watched the men and women talk and the children play and understood why this was a community worth saving. As such, Newport is representative of the Arkansas Delta, a promising region that deserves more of our attention during this crucial time.
After all, the road doesn’t end there. It’s just a little bumpier ahead.