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.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - REX NEL­SON

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.”

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY JOHN DEER­ING

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