The City of Helena-West Helena in Phillips County, Arkansas is no stranger to the hardships that have plagued many communities across the country during the economic downturn.
High unemployment, a struggling education system, political upheaval, a crumbling infrastructure, and even unresolved racial inequalities were once the hallmarks of this unified city in the impoverished Arkansas Delta. However, new research findings show some positive demographic trends and community development projects have some residents saying Helen-West Helena is finally making a comeback.
On an overcast and chilly afternoon, Tommie Gause is finishing up some landscaping work at Freedom Park in Helena.
“We are back there putting these benches together and it’s hard work,” said Gause as he asks his nephew to pass him some tools.
As Tommie lifts large iron and metal parts from boxes, the wide brim of his crumpled hat shields his face from the cold.
“I was born and raised here, but I left and was gone for 25 years. I moved back in 1991, I’ve been here ever since, and I love it,” Gause said while kneeling in the dirt. “You can grow your own vegetables, go fishing anytime you want to, and catch and eat good food.”
Tommie Gause says the heart of Helena is “good ole’ country living” and he’s pleased with the changes taking place.
“Oh, it’s really growing that I can see from the time that I had left and came back and that’s a good sign,” Gause said. “Jobs must be here that need to be filled so people are moving to Helen-West Helena.
Gause’s sentiments are backed up by recent estimates. U.S. Census Bureau data show relative stability for the city’s population after decades of decline. There were 21,442 residents in Phillips County in 2011, which means a loss of only 16 people between 2008 and 2011.
Some reasons for the promising demographic trends include new grassroots organizations that address health and housing issues, as well as changes in the local education system due to KIPP charter schools and Teach For America.
Improvements at Helena Harbor, the city’s port on the Mississippi River, have generated new jobs. Additionally, over $95 million in traditional bank loans and over $10 million in investments from Southern Bancorp and its nonprofit have helped kick-start the city’s economy through various development projects throughout Phillips County.
Cathy Cunningham is a consultant with Southern Bancorp Community Partners, a nonprofit development organization that tries to create new educational and economic opportunities for rural communities in the South. She lived in Helena for 35 years and takes me to some of the key Civil War Heritage sites in town that have been restored or recreated to bolster tourism.
There’s Estevan Hall, an antebellum home that was used by the Union Army as a hospital.
“Southern Bancorp Community Partners owns [Estevan Hall] now and is restoring it to be the Civil War Visitors Center when it opens,” Cunningham said. “We’ve completed Phase I, which you can see has totally restored the outside.”
Then there are the commemorative sites that experienced the heat of battle.
“We have a replica of Fort Curtis, the Union Fort that was actually here. Battery C will also be interpreted and it sits on one of our hillsides here in town.” Cunningham noted while walking past an historical maker at another tourist site.
Battery C is one of four earthen batteries erected by the Union Army in 1862, it briefly fell to Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863.
“For years, all we talked about were the seven Confederate generals from Phillips County, which is very exciting to have [that many generals] from such a small community,” said Cunningham. “But we were occupied for four years by the Union Army and therefore had a lot of African-American freedom-seekers who followed the Union Army and then actually joined it here in Helena.”
In all, there are 25 cultural heritage sites on the ‘Civil War Helena Tour,’ including Freedom Park.
“The park tells the story of what happened to the African-American escaped slaves, as they followed the Union Army into Helena,” said Cunningham while pointing to several exhibits in the park. “It’s a place for people to sit, picnic, contemplate, and think about what the park really means.”
Cathy Cunningham says new efforts to highlight the city’s rich Civil War and music history should attract tourists and cause a definite demand for hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other service industries that will hopefully put more people to work.
“I just love Helena. I love the community. I love the history. I really love the people,” Cunningham said. “I think we’re at a point in our community where, depending on how we handle our history, we could make a positive change in the lives of so many people and really be a total community with African-Americans, as well as whites, the young, and old.”
Back inside Freedom Park, Tommie Gause’s nephew is helping assemble the iron benches. Jeffrey Gause is 28-years old and says more still needs to be done for young people in town.
“Lots of teenagers and adults [in the city] need jobs, because aint’ [enough] work going on here,” said Jeffrey Gause. “We just need some things kids can do to keep them out of trouble.”
Jeffrey Gause admits historic sites are fine, but they are not the same as having a shopping mall or a videogame arcade...the kinds of things that keep children busy.
While screwing together pieces of a bench, Tommie Gause nods his head and agrees with his nephew that local youth need more opportunities. He says there still needs to be more community development, additional city improvements, and jobs for those who want one.
Though there is much to do, Tommie Gause admits Helena-West Helena is finally headed in the right direction.
“Well, I like to see us moving forward and that’s what we’re doing. It’s just amazing that we’re moving forward,” Gause said.
Helena-West Helena has seen its share of problems, but residents are trying to use every tool available to rebuild their community.