Wilson developers working through long to-do list to draw visitors, residents

by Paul Holmes (paulh@talkbusiness.net) 3,600 views 

Travel through many of the small communities of the southern Delta and the chances are the scenery that rolls past the car window tells the same story — that of how a once-busy farming community is battling for its life or has already lost it.

But if that traveler’s route runs through Wilson, Arkansas, on historic U.S. Highway 61, immediately it is apparent that Wilson offers a different narrative. Wilson showcases the Delta’s history, culture, food, music and art, but more importantly, blends a rich past with an exciting future.

One can’t help but notice at first glance the town square’s Tudor-style architecture unique to this area and projecting a different local aura. Wilson “feels different,” says John Faulkner, acting head of the Maker-model The Delta School at Wilson “because it is.”

After Robert E. Lee “Roy” Wilson II returned from a honeymoon trip to England in 1928 with an admiration for English architecture and constructed his own Tudor-style home, every commercial building erected in Wilson for the next 40 years was built in the Tudor style. But its look is only a part of Wilson’s “feel.”

Founded by Robert E. Lee Wilson in 1886 to support a sawmill operation, Wilson grew into one of the largest company towns in the region. Lee Wilson and Co. drained the swamp, cleared the land and converted to cotton production with the company at one time considered the largest cotton producer in the South.

The town was much larger than its current 903 inhabitants and the company operated the retail and services needed to support its population, which at one time numbered in the thousands.

In 2010, the Wilson family decided to sell its vast holdings in the area and desired a buyer that would be mindful of the town and its culture.

The Lawrence Group, headed by the late Gaylon Lawrence Sr., was that buyer, acquiring the farmland and virtually all of the commercial real estate holdings. The Lawrence Group’s holdings include farmland in five states, orange groves in Florida, banks, the Heitz winery and vineyard in Napa Valley, Calif., one of the largest HVAC distributors in the country and the largest cotton gin by volume in the Mid-South.

Gaylon Lawrence Sr. died in 2012. Gaylon Lawrence Jr. heads the Lawrence Group and since 2012 has dedicated considerable time, talent and treasure to revitalizing Wilson. He could have just left Wilson alone to meet the same fate as many of its Delta counterparts, but Lawrence, a native of the Missouri Bootheel, had other plans.

“When (the company) bought the land, it was about buying the land,” said the Lawrence Group’s Bevin Hunter. She and Tommy Wagner are co-chiefs leading the strategy and economic development for Wilson for the Lawrence Group. In fact, Wagner said, the Lawrence Group would have paid more for just the land. But to get the farmers, the company wanted to farm the land the best way possible, said Wagner, “they had to live here. And to live here, they needed quality of life.”

As a result, the company moved its world headquarters to the renovated former offices of Lee Wilson and Co. and established the private Delta School in the Tudor-style former Roy Wilson family residence just north of the town. All the buildings on the square have been restored.

The company renovated the Wilson Cafe on the square and lured a chef from Memphis, Tenn., to run it with a farm-to-table scratch menu using products from the community garden and other local sources. Country music star Holly Williams, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of legend Hank Williams, established her first White’s Mercantile store outside Nashville in the historic Wilson gas station across the highway from the town square.

The Lawrence Group partnered with the state to move the Hampson Archaeological State Park and Museum into a new space on the square. The museum houses a collection of Native American artifacts from late Mississippian Period.

“I think the main focus is that we want to be inclusive,” Wagner said. “It’s not Gaylon wants to own everything, but let’s help facilitate others to come to Wilson not as an employee, but as a small-business owner.”

The Wilson Theatre will soon reopen to host the Wilson Music Series, which has brought in such stars as John Oates, Ashley McBryde and others. The Music Series “is a big cool factor” for Wilson, Wagner said. Other projects underway include renovating the old Wilson School gym into a fitness facility and restoring the outdoor tennis courts. The second phase of that project may include a swimming pool, Hunter said. Also, Jill Forrester of nearby Whitton Farms is working with the Lawrence Group to establish a flower garden and lead classes about growing and arranging flowers.

The loft portion of the headquarters building will be converted to overnight king rooms and suites in addition to its three Airbnb-style residences that the company already has “so you can come and stay the weekend,” Hunter said. The lofts may feature a Heitz Cellars wine tasting.

“We’ve got bike and trail paths figured out for construction,” Wagner said, “and we’re talking about trap and skeet ranges for something else to do.”

While the list of amenities is long, “We’ll do it organically rather than all at once,” he said. “Capital is one thing, but human capital is another. We want people to come here, put their kids in school. We’re also doing some residential building we’ll have for sale.”

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