Better days ahead?
Helena-West Helena continues the struggle that many towns in the Arkansas Delta are facing; officials are hopeful that getting involved and improving community relations will be the right path.
HELENA—Some were born here. Others came to Helena later in life. Some are black, others are white. All of them are trying to connect the dots—in areas ranging from education to public safety to economic development—and find a way to slow the loss of population in this part of the Arkansas Delta.
It’s an uphill battle, and has been for decades. Yet there’s a certain charm here—picture an aging grande dame living in what’s sometimes described as genteel poverty, a lady who can no longer see to put her makeup on correctly though she still tries—that draws idealists with dreams of better days.
There’s also poverty, hopelessness and crime. Lots of it.
James Patrick Smith, police chief of a town with the convoluted official name of Helena-West Helena, sits in his office on a summer Friday afternoon and explains why he left the Memphis Police Department after two decades to return to the place where he was raised.
“My plan was to retire from the Memphis Police Department,” Smith says. “But people kept asking me if I would consider coming back home and try to make a difference here.”
Helena, incorporated in 1833, thrived as a Mississippi River port from the 1850s until the 1950s. The city had a population of 11,236 in the 1950 census. By the 2000 census, the population had dropped to 6,323.
West Helena, a railroad town, was incorporated in 1917. It was more working-class, its residents different from the prosperous merchant class and farmers who called Helena home. With both towns bleeding
population, voters decided in 2005 to merge the cities. A dozen years later, most people across Arkansas refer to it simply as Helena. Three-fourths of the residents are black. Poverty levels are high. More often than not, news stories out of Helena are crime stories.
Smith graduated from Helena-West Helena Central High School in 1992 and headed south to Louisiana to play in the famed marching band at Grambling University. An uncle was badly injured two years later, and Smith was told that he was needed back home to take up the slack. He joined the security force at a casino in 1995 and the Memphis Police Department two years later, doing everything from working as an undercover agent to serving on a drug task force to conducting internal affairs investigations. All of that training will be needed as he runs what has often been a troubled department in a troubled town.
Smith’s predecessor, Virgil Green, was fired in April after running for and losing a county sheriff’s race in Oklahoma. Green had taken the job in Arkansas in 2015, but his wife and two children stayed behind in Oklahoma.
Perhaps it takes someone who grew up in Helena to really understand the place. Smith has that going for him. And he has wasted no time making changes. In late June the man who had served as the city’s assistant police chief for 11 years, Ronald Scott, was fired after an investigation into timecard discrepancies.
Smith is an ordained minister, and it shows when he preaches the gospel of a safer Helena.
“One of the things I want to focus on is better relations with the community,” Smith says. “Police work is changing. You have to be involved in the community. There must be transparency. It’s why I have an open-door policy. I handle all of the complaints personally.”
Smith has ambitious goals. He wants to focus on public corruption. He wants to obtain input from a community advisory board. He wants his officers to be better trained than in the past.
“You know how you become effective in a town like this?” he asks. “You go out, you knock on doors and you talk to that grandmother out there about what she needs in her neighborhood. We’ve never had that type of relationship between the police department and the people who live here. That’s about to change.”
Sitting across the room listening to Smith is John Edwards, a former state legislator and 2nd Congressional District candidate who began doing consulting work for the Phillips County Port Authority in 2011 and took over port operations in October 2014.
“Prior to coming to this position, I must confess that I never fully valued the navigation system of our nation and particularly what we have on the Mississippi River,” Edwards testified last year at a Mississippi River Commission meeting. “Since taking this position, I never cease to be in awe of this river and the people who work on and with it every day. … The board of directors of the port authority initially hired me to evaluate how to make it a place where commerce and job creation could exist. One of the first things I found was that the appropriate emphasis had not been placed on infrastructure that would make the port a viable place to do business.”
In 2015 the port received natural gas service. It also obtained advanced broadband fiber from AT&T to address the information technology needs of businesses that might locate there. The short-line railroad serving Phillips County was rebuilt and service resumed in October 2015.
Though he didn’t grow up in Helena, Edwards says his parents once lived in the city when his father was in the agricultural chemical business. He laments the fact that the harbor “just sat there” as he watched from afar and saw Helena’s population decline year after year.
“We have this slackwater harbor and 4,000 acres,” Edwards tells the new police chief. “It’s an amazing asset, but there was little recognition of that fact. The thing that was missing was a group of people who could pull all of the pieces together. Public safety is critical to economic development. It has to be a cohesive approach. We must be able to show people in other parts of the state and the country that we can make things happen in Helena. I truly believe those pieces are starting to come together. I couldn’t have said that with a straight face five years ago. But it’s happening now.”
Also in the room is Andrew Bagley, a social science instructor at Phillips Community College who serves as president of the Helena-West Helena School Board. Bagley helped lead the fight for a millage increase that will result in new facilities for Central High School. The city’s charter schools, part of the KIPP Delta Public Schools network, have received well-deserved attention since the first middle school opened its doors in the fall of 2002 with 65 fifth-grade students. The Helena-West Helena School District, on the other hand, has been the subject of state takeovers, the most recent of which ended in March 2016.
“We’re going to try to be excellent in everything we do going forward,” Bagley says of the Helena-West Helena School District.
Smith, Edwards and Bagley are part of the core group trying to finally end the decades of population loss.
They’re joined by people such as Terrance Clark and Will Staley from the nonprofit design firm Thrive and Joel and Amber Tipton from the award-winning Edwardian Inn.
Thrive, which has its offices in a former haberdashery on Cherry Street in downtown Helena, began in November 2009 as a nonprofit with the goal of helping Delta organizations address poverty and economic development issues. In 2015 Thrive partnered with the University of Arkansas’ graphic design program on an internship initiative designed to provide assistance to Delta entrepreneurs. Staley and Clark dream of a day when Cherry Street will have a cluster of artists’ galleries. Thrive supporters have ranged from the Clinton Family Foundation to the Arkansas Arts Council to individual givers.
“This is a community that generally accepts new people and new ideas,” Clark says. “They wanted us to be a part of what’s going on here, and we sensed some momentum back in 2009 when the county did its strategic plan.”
Staley talks about once having lived in Brooklyn and being enchanted with his old neighborhood’s grit. He found a rural Southern version of such grit at Helena and remembers an early visit when “we soaked in the atmosphere of this place and just loved it.”
Clark now owns the apartment complex where he first lived after moving to Helena.
“How do you grow a business in rural America?” Clark asks. “We took the business model of traditional design firms and put a rural spin on it. Now, we’re doing contract work for small businesses throughout the region. We’re not making the type of money we would make in a place like New York City, but we’re doing something that’s unique.”
Staley explains it this way: “We want our graphic design work to do more than just sell products. We’re designing solutions for entire communities. We’re doing everything from producing fairs on Cherry Street to teaching classes. It’s fun, and it’s rewarding.”
A few blocks away on Biscoe Street, Joel and Amber Tipton are making constant improvements to the 1904 home that houses their bed-and-breakfast inn. The couple was living in a Dallas suburb when Joel lost his sales job for a large corporation.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to get back into that corporate rat race,” he says. “We decided to look for bed-andbreakfast inns for sale in Texas and the surrounding states. We had never heard of Helena, but we found a listing for the Edwardian Inn and first came here in the summer of 2015.”
The Tiptons saw the poverty. They also saw the potential.
“We decided that maybe it was time for us to go to an underserved part of the country and give back,” Joel says. “We almost doubled the amount of business in the first year after closing on this property in September 2015.”
Amber continues to sell Bath Junkie products, and Joel does contract work on websites. The Edwardian Inn has a strong social media presence, and the number of people coming to Helena specifically for weekend getaways is increasing. In addition to breakfast, the couple will serve dinner at the inn with a 24-hour advance notice. They’re also becoming more outspoken about community issues, even taking sides that can rankle some old-timers.
Positive change doesn’t come overnight in a place like Helena, but there are those on the kudzu-covered hills of Crowley’s Ridge who are convinced it will come one of these days.
“We felt we could bring professionalism to the town in some new areas,” Joel Tipton says. “I knew that somehow we could help.”