Welcome to the Delta 

Could it become a place for tourists?

SAVED: Church at Dumas.
  • SAVED: Church at Dumas.

Two weeks after a tornado ravaged the small Delta town of Dumas, the Desha County Museum Board met to decide the fate of the Pickens Baptist Church, a small, nearly 100-year-old African-American church on the county museum grounds.

The storm, in its mercurial way, had skipped over a cluster of adjacent log shacks and dogtrots and homed in on the clapboard church, lifting and promptly dropping it some four feet away. On the exterior, relative to the devastation elsewhere, the church looked simply bruised. But off its concrete block foundation, its floor had buckled and a rear wall had shifted. Prior to the meeting, two local contractors had surveyed the damage and estimated between $55,000 and $60,000 in repairs. The museum board voted not to try to save the building.

That night, Beth Wiedower, the Arkansas Delta field representative for the Rural Heritage Development Initiative, received word of the board’s decision just before a meeting in Little Rock. At 9:30 p.m., after the meeting, she phoned her boss at the National Trust for Historic Preservation at home in Fort Worth and begged him to find emergency funding so that she could hire a preservation architect to reassess the work.

Two days later, Wiedower brought Tommy Jameson, a Little Rock preservation architect, to survey the site. Jameson determined that, using a house mover, the building could be stabilized and repaired for an amount covered by the museum’s insurance policy.

Wiedower was ecstatic. The Pickens Church is crucial to her long-range plans for the Delta. She hopes to help restore the church and convert it into the Delta Gospel Institute, a working institution and performance hall, where Dumas can celebrate its rich gospel heritage and draw tourists.

“The potential of the structure to be an economic player is tremendous,” Wiedower says.

This is a new kind of preservation — one that’s devoted to cultural heritage, but often through adaptive reuse. Proponents argue that it’s a key to the Delta’s revitalization.

Sixteen months ago, the Rural Heritage Development Initiative (RHDI) went to work in the Delta. Sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and funded with a $745,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the initiative grew out of the Arkansas Main Street program, another National Trust-sponsored project.

While 10 of the participating Main Street communities flourished across the state in 2004, the remaining five, in the East Arkansas communities of Blytheville, Dumas, Helena, Osceola and West Memphis, struggled with redevelopment. That spring, Main Street Arkansas asked the National Trust to collaborate on an assessment of its Delta programs. The resulting report, on not just the five Main Street programs but the entire Arkansas Delta, was so voluminous and filled with such wide-ranging proposals that its authors saw fit to include, in the introduction, a credo from the famous urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham — “Make no small plans.”

After using the report to get money from the Kellogg Foundation, the National Trust selected two regions to participate in a three-year pilot program: an eight-county swath of central Kentucky called the Knob region, and the impetus behind the program, the 15 counties that stretch along Arkansas’ eastern border and make up our Delta.

The 15 Delta counties are Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.



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