Helena-West Helena is part of Phillips County in the Arkansas Delta. According to U.S. Census data, the county’s population decreased over 17 percent in the last ten years, which means by some estimates the population is less than half of what it was in the 1950s. However, new community-led efforts in Helena-West Helena seek to make the area’s history and culture a catalyst for investment and growth.
Inside the Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street in downtown Helena, people mill around and prepare for a reception and book signing later in the evening. The literary event will help launch a new book about Helena and Phillips County.
Tanya Thomas is usually the first person greeting visitors when they enter the Center.
“Well, I order for the gift store and so I enjoy doing it and I’ve been doing it for six years now. I’m going to continue on hopefully,” said Thomas, while operating a cash register at the gift shop.
Thomas says she won’t give her age, but she’s been living in Helena pretty much all her life. She’s seen some changes in the community, especially with all the development surrounding efforts to attract tourists to local Civil War sites in the city. However, Thomas says finding jobs is still a major concern for many residents.
“I hear people say a lot that they need work to do and we don’t have that here and that’s why we need jobs,” Thomas said. “Everything else is trying to come up… everything else is pretty much smooth sailing.”
Though the job shortage is a problem, the city’s rich music history means there are a lot of festivals. Tanya Thomas says there is always some event happening in town.
“The Blues Fest brings in a lot of crowds. We have a lot of Blues Fests, because we have the Hog Fest, we have the Gospel Fest, and then there is a Rockabilly Festival too that goes on so that brings in a lot of tourists to Helena and brings a lot of sale prices up for us too,” Thomas said. “[But at the end of the day], we still need jobs.”
On this day inside the center, the temporary exhibit includes fascinating paintings and sculptures all done by African-American artists who live in the Arkansas Delta.
“Oh my goodness, the Delta Cultural Center is really the heart of downtown,” said Paula Oliver, who works at the Center.
Oliver is one of the authors of “Images of America: Helena and Phillips County,” a book filled with anecdotes and historic photographs of the area and its residents. This is the same book that’s the focus of that special nighttime event.
“[The Delta Cultural Center’s] mission is all about preserving the heritage of the area so a lot of that involves music and more recently it involves our Civil War Heritage,” Oliver said as she sits behind her desk.
The Center has a large presence in town that includes the Depot Museum; a Visitor Center; an antebellum residence called the Moore-Hornor Home, which served as a hospital during the Civil War; and an historic Jewish temple that’s now called Beth El Heritage Hall.
Paula Oliver says the Center is expanding its exhibits and collections to display a wide variety of art forms from local and regional artists. Sculptures, watercolor and oil paintings, quilts, and music remind visitors of the talent and tenacity displayed by Delta artisans.
“Well, I’m a native of Helena so I grew up here and I remember it when it was thriving,” Oliver said while leaning back in here office chair. “I grew up in the 1960s and we had a much larger population then.”
Though there has been a 17.72 percent decrease in the population for all of Phillips County in the last 10 years, Census Data also shows a slowdown in the number of people leaving the county. The average income per person in Phillips County increased by a little over $600 and in the last three years there has been a 1.5 percent decrease in the poverty rate.
Paula Oliver says she’s witnessed a noticeable turnaround in some Helena-West Helena neighborhoods; partially due to the work of the “Delta Bridge Project,” a community development approach that combines the power of philanthropy and banking to revitalize certain rural areas in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.
“In the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen some very positive things happen in the community,” said Oliver. “The downtown area has seen growth, we’ve had a number of retail shops open, and we also have some upper-floor housing projects going on downtown that are very exciting.”
Later that evening at the book signing event, longtime Helena resident Ernest Cunningham fondly remembered what the town was like during his childhood.
“Well, I was born in 1936 and except for the Army and college I lived here the whole time,” said Cunningham. “Helena was a booming town. We had a lot of people up and down Cherry Street, our Main Street, on Saturday. Helena was fun. We had three picture shows, a drive-in theater, and we don’t have those things now but we still got a great town.”
Though tough economic times have stifled several improvement initiatives, Cunningham says area residents have the right attitude and skills necessary to keep progress going.
“I think the people of Helena-West Helena are the friendliest people in the world,” said Cunningham. “Even though we may not know everybody, we speak to them when we walk down the street… we’ve got a neighborly town.”
Since 2003, the community-driven revitalization initiative, known as the Delta Bridge Project, has helped leverage over $100 million in loans, grants, and other funding to support development.
“For a long time, we didn’t feel good with the way things were going. I mean, we felt like things were just going downhill,” said Ernest Cunningham, as he walks through the Delta Cultural Center. “The Delta Bridge Project has given us all hope. We’ve seen some great things come out of it and we think more things will. I think it has just changed the atmosphere of the town… I hope it has.”
Heritage tourism is now an essential part of the city’s overall development strategy. Residents say preserving important pieces of history are stimulating economic growth; encouraging city-wide beatification projects; and paving the way for a rebirth and renaissance in Helena-West Helena.