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Welcome to the Delta

Could it become a place for tourists?


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SAVED: Church at Dumas.
  • SAVED: Church at Dumas.

Two weeks after a tornado ravaged the small Delta town of Dumas, the Desha County Museum Board met to decide the fate of the Pickens Baptist Church, a small, nearly 100-year-old African-American church on the county museum grounds.

The storm, in its mercurial way, had skipped over a cluster of adjacent log shacks and dogtrots and homed in on the clapboard church, lifting and promptly dropping it some four feet away. On the exterior, relative to the devastation elsewhere, the church looked simply bruised. But off its concrete block foundation, its floor had buckled and a rear wall had shifted. Prior to the meeting, two local contractors had surveyed the damage and estimated between $55,000 and $60,000 in repairs. The museum board voted not to try to save the building.

That night, Beth Wiedower, the Arkansas Delta field representative for the Rural Heritage Development Initiative, received word of the board’s decision just before a meeting in Little Rock. At 9:30 p.m., after the meeting, she phoned her boss at the National Trust for Historic Preservation at home in Fort Worth and begged him to find emergency funding so that she could hire a preservation architect to reassess the work.

Two days later, Wiedower brought Tommy Jameson, a Little Rock preservation architect, to survey the site. Jameson determined that, using a house mover, the building could be stabilized and repaired for an amount covered by the museum’s insurance policy.

Wiedower was ecstatic. The Pickens Church is crucial to her long-range plans for the Delta. She hopes to help restore the church and convert it into the Delta Gospel Institute, a working institution and performance hall, where Dumas can celebrate its rich gospel heritage and draw tourists.

“The potential of the structure to be an economic player is tremendous,” Wiedower says.

This is a new kind of preservation — one that’s devoted to cultural heritage, but often through adaptive reuse. Proponents argue that it’s a key to the Delta’s revitalization.

Sixteen months ago, the Rural Heritage Development Initiative (RHDI) went to work in the Delta. Sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and funded with a $745,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the initiative grew out of the Arkansas Main Street program, another National Trust-sponsored project.

While 10 of the participating Main Street communities flourished across the state in 2004, the remaining five, in the East Arkansas communities of Blytheville, Dumas, Helena, Osceola and West Memphis, struggled with redevelopment. That spring, Main Street Arkansas asked the National Trust to collaborate on an assessment of its Delta programs. The resulting report, on not just the five Main Street programs but the entire Arkansas Delta, was so voluminous and filled with such wide-ranging proposals that its authors saw fit to include, in the introduction, a credo from the famous urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham — “Make no small plans.”

After using the report to get money from the Kellogg Foundation, the National Trust selected two regions to participate in a three-year pilot program: an eight-county swath of central Kentucky called the Knob region, and the impetus behind the program, the 15 counties that stretch along Arkansas’ eastern border and make up our Delta.

The 15 Delta counties are Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.

“We’re at the tail end of a 60-year out-migration,” says Wiedower, who, as field representative for the National Trust, constitutes the entirety of the RHDI’s pilot program in the Delta. “We’re what economists would call a very cold market — we’re not growing and we’re not building. In terms of preservation, that’s a good thing. If there’s no influx of money and there’s no growth, then typically there’s no money to tear down old buildings, and there’s no money to put up new buildings.

“We have a tremendous amount of our historic fabric still in the region. How do we use that and take our unique history and heritage and culture and use it for our economic gain? Certainly there is a place for a Toyota plant, but in addition, we need to be looking at our own regional flavor and what makes us as the Arkansas Delta unique and distinctive, not only for ourselves as residents, but for potential heritage tourists and for potential businesses moving in who are looking at community and quality of life issues.”

Of course for decades, scores of groups and grants have tried to reinvigorate the Delta. There’ve been successes, perhaps none more so than Arkansas Delta Byways, the program that oversees the state’s two National Scenic Byways, the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Great River Road. According to its executive director, Ruth Hawkins, the organization has been able to attract more than $15 million from federal, state, and private funds to promote the areas along the roads.

But throughout the region, there’s been little broad-based planning; too often programs work at cross-purposes; and small communities only miles apart compete against each other.

The RHDI exists as a reaction to those problems. Not a funding arm (the Kellogg grant pays Wiedower’s salary and supplies technical assistance, largely in the form of advisors) but a development web that, after three years, advisors, but a hope will be able to stand alone.

“Whereas a lot of grant programs have come and gone and you wonder where the money went, the RHDI brings together a lot of important groups to form a solid establishment,” says Debbie Shea, a Dumas native and one of two National Trust advisors in Arkansas.

“Where a lot of programs have been wide open, the RHDI came in with a specific three-year plan.”

Essentially an umbrella group, the initiative embraces three chief partners: Main Street Arkansas, Arkansas Delta Byways and the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. But more broadly, Wiedower says she traveled some 32,000 miles last year, trying to connect with every local chamber, Kiwanis Club, historical society and Delta community group that would have her.

“What the RHDI brings to the table is a continuous presence in the region,” says Hawkins, who also serves as the director of heritage initiatives at ASU and has been a supporter of the region for more than two decades. “It provides us with a field rep who’s out in the Delta constantly, which is something that none of us have been able to do everyday.”

Wiedower’s initial order of business in 2006 centered on preservation education, or making the case for the relevance of preservation. Wiedower focused largely on heritage tourism, a burgeoning market that targets visitors seeking authentic, distinctive cultures. A luau in Hawaii, a stop in Amish country and a trip to the Delta bean fields?

“I find it hard to believe,” Lee Bowles, owner of Bowles Liquor and Grocery Store in the Mississippi River town of Osceola. “I can’t see the Delta becoming a tourist destination. There’s a bunch of farmers in here all the time, and I guess they can start up a tour if their crops keep going down.”

Wiedower’s scholarly training is in preservation, but before she started with the RHDI, the 30-year-old Little Rock native spent several years in Washington working in marketing. She says she’s been told she lost her accent in D.C., so she purposefully begins all presentations with, “I’m a native Arkansan,” to preempt suspicion of carpetbaggery. After a 16 months living, breathing and promoting the Delta, her accent hasn’t returned, but she’s adopted the impassioned speech of a country preacher or a stump politician.

“We have to dust off our pride in the region — to be proud of the agricultural heritage that we have and the fact that we’re still such a leader in the nation’s breadbasket, and the fact that American music was born right here. Quintessential American music came out of these fields and out of the experiences of the African Americans and whites working them. It traveled up our roads, and it traveled up the river, and a lot of times it went with the African Americans migrating to Chicago, or it went with the servicemen taking the Greyhound buses out of Blytheville and Memphis. [We have to] remind people that there’s something here to be proud of.”

Beyond encouraging Delta pride, Wiedower says she also has to convince locals to think regionally. “Each individual town doesn’t have enough resources or enough attractions to draw in new businesses or heritage tourists, but collectively when you start adding up the Hemingway-Pfeiffer museum in Piggott, the Greyhound bus station and the proposed Mississippi County Heritage Museum in Blytheville, the ice house where Elvis played in West Memphis, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza — we just last week found out that the city of Dyess has purchased the Dyess Colony Administration Building, which is the first step to interpreting the Johnny Cash story — the critical mass is there and that’s just a third of the way through the region.”

As it embarks on its second year, Wiedower says the RHDI is now more focused on delivering products and programs. This fall, the Arkansas Music Heritage Trail will open in the Delta. The first of three heritage trails funded by a Preserve America Grant (African-American and agricultural-themed trails are forthcoming), the trail will eventually include historical markers at locations of musical import throughout the region — like the spot near Twist where B.B. King named his guitar “Lucille.”

In the beginning, though, the trail will live largely in a two-disc CD/DVD that will serve as a kind of tour guide for the region. Rather than get mired in time-consuming development around landmarks or the creation of new facilities, Wiedower says the discs are a way to raise awareness about the region’s musical heritage while working on developing sites.

The CDs, Wiedower says, will function like an audio documentary: a narrator will guide listeners through music and oral histories that tell the story of the region, and tracks will be arranged geographically, so that when a visitor enters the region, he can select the song or commentary that corresponds. Similarly, the DVD component will give viewers a guided tour of stops along the trail, featuring commentary from experts and locals. In September, the collection will be available at welcome centers and retail stores and the music will be downloadable on the Internet (Wiedower hopes to make the movie portion downloadable at a later point).

Also in the fall (likely at the annual Slate 60 Conference on Innovative Philanthropy), the RHDI and its partners will unveil the DeltaMade campaign. Supported by an Association for Enterprise Opportunity Regional Flavor grant, the campaign will promote regional products under the brand “Arkansas Delta: Soil & Soul,” which was unveiled in early May. Wiedower enthusiastically reels off participating businesses, including Shadden’s Barbecue in Helena, That Bookstore in Blytheville and Gail Miller in Dumas, who fashions pottery out of Delta mud and, Wiedower marvels, appeared in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog last year. These products and businesses will be represented on a DeltaMade website and, when possible, sold at gift centers and retail outlets throughout the region and state.

At its core, the campaign is a business development initiative aimed, Wiedower says, at teaching local businesses things like how to market themselves, the value of internet-based sales, how to package their product and how to identify their audience. Additionally, the program hopes to connect entrepreneurs or local businesses with ideas and funding for new products. Like one of Wiedower’s favorites, but one that is usually met with blank stares in the Delta: the development of Arkansas edamame (or edible soybeans).

Almost halfway through the pilot program, the long-term future of the RHDI is promising. “Because we were so vigorous and because of our networking in the first year we’ve been prematurely rewarded,” Wiedower says. “We’ve been approached by several corporate entities, non-profits and key partners, who have all committed to making sure that the programs we’ve started continue on.

“It’s no secret that we’re not going to massive and obvious change in the next three years,” Wiedower concedes. But in five to seven years, she hopes to see a new Delta, built firmly on its traditions.


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