My 50 years of Delta reflection

by Paul Holmes (paulh@talkbusiness.net) 292 views 

There’s nothing like a class reunion to put one into a reflective mood.

My first thought was gosh, it doesn’t seem like it has been half a century since they handed us those diplomas from West Memphis High School and wished us well for what would be perhaps our first forays into the real world.

However, a glance around the party venue last weekend provided clear and convincing evidence (as if there were any doubt) of what the calendar and mirror have been telling me — those of us who were born in the middle of the last century have had varying degrees of success trying to defeat time and gravity.

Like the Delta from which we were launched just two months ahead of Apollo 11’s historic blastoff, we’re certainly older, hopefully a lot wiser, and maybe a bit more scarred since we took off to enter the workforce, taste the college experience or join the military fighting a war half a world away.

The Delta, however, in many regards, has done a better job of reinventing itself than we are able to do individually. No need to wheel up to the venue in a Jag like a couple of our classmates did for our first reunion four decades ago. By the time the 50-year get-together rolls around, if you’re privileged enough to still be on this planet, you are what you are. Since the Delta was here eons before we were and will still be here long after we’ve returned to dust, perhaps it holds its age better than we do.

Drive from Jonesboro to West Memphis this time of year and you still see evidence of the time when cotton was king of the South — perhaps nothing says Delta agriculture more than fields of fully open cotton bolls ready to yield their bounty. Cotton serves as a reminder also, that the farm technology revolution was followed by loss of jobs, migration of workers and in many instances the withering of small towns.

But the Delta and its people are nothing if not resilient. You won’t see a cotton compress or a cypress lumber mill today in West Memphis, but what you soon will see is an inspection and distribution center for Carvana, an e-commerce platform for buying and selling used cars. The company plans to invest approximately $40 million in the building, equipment and infrastructure, and create more than 400 jobs in the coming years.

Also in West Memphis, ASU-MidSouth educates its students in diverse, in-demand fields such as aviation technology, diesel maintenance and digital media.

With the voters giving the nod to expansion of casino gambling in the state, the former Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis is now Southland Gaming and Racing. A $250 million expansion including a hotel now under way at Southland seems certain to draw visitors from throughout the South, likely further diminishing Tunica County, Miss., as a gamblers’ mecca.

Take a look northward at Mississippi County and you’ll see Wilson, the former plantation community being restored and improved dramatically by The Lawrence Group, headed by Gaylon Lawrence Jr. Not only does the Lawrence Group own a vast amount of rich farmland in Mississippi County, but through the company’s revitalization efforts, outstanding music, stellar cuisine and exceptional retail will surprise the first-time visitor to Wilson.

Not far from Wilson is Dyess, the New Deal farming colony that attracted Ray Cash and his family from Kingsland in south Arkansas. As we know, son J.R. would grow up to become the legendary Johnny Cash. With great effort and of course a significant amount of grants and other funding, Arkansas State has transformed several of the once-derelict Colony buildings into museum and education space and painstakingly returned the Cashes’ shotgun house to its 1930s appearance. Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, in October will headline the annual Johnny Cash Heritage Festival concert in the cotton field adjacent to the house.

Blytheville, once larger in population than Jonesboro, was dealt a blow in 1991 when the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission tagged Eaker Air Force base for closure as the Cold War came to an end. The base was turned over to the City of Blytheville, and it now serves as an international airport and if a community group has its way, will become the home of a Cold War museum.

But no story of change would be complete without mentioning the successful development of Mississippi County — still one of the nation’s prime agricultural areas — into one what has become one of the leading steel-producing counties in the United States. The late John Correnti, former CEO of both Nucor and competitor Big River Steel (at different times, of course), called Mississippi County “steel mill heaven” because of its proximity to the Mississippi River, direct connection to a railroad and access to interstate highways.

Speaking of interstate highways, two-lane U.S. 63 between Jonesboro and I-55 at Lake David in Crittenden County, after many years, much political effort and millions of dollars, has been converted to restricted-access I-555, giving the region’s largest city an interstate connection.

Despite so much effort to improve and reinvent it, the Delta remains the Delta. Alongside wealth and progress are staggering poverty, nagging unemployment and lack of economic opportunity.

Those of us who care about this unique part of the world that we call home must continue to try to improve it, and not wait 50 years to do so.

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Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at paulh@talkbusiness.net. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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