December 17, 2012 10:22:51 AM
It's been a tough road for the Delta, but high commodity prices are giving the region a healthy boost.
I recently saw Sykes Sturdivant in Greenwood, and asked him how the crop turned out. "Good," was his answer. I nearly fainted. After spending three decades around Delta planters, known for their poor-mouthing and pessimism, this may be a first. I insisted on video recording Sykes on my smart phone to ensure I didn't imagine this.
I got the same answer from Northsider Jim Thomas, who farms Egypt Plantation near Greenwood. When a Delta planter says "good" you know they just made a small fortune.
Using corn to make fuel has been a huge boost for the ag sector, making them the new Saudis. Not only have corn prices risen, but using acreage for corn has raised prices for other row crops such as rice, cotton and soybeans.
Add to this a severe drought in the Midwest, where rolling terrain makes irrigation difficult. Meanwhile, the flat Delta sits above a huge water supply, making the irrigation easy.
High prices and a strong crop equals some serious money flowing into the Delta. Easy to get and even easier to spread.
The irony is that the Delta, with nearly 90 percent irrigation, could have withstood a severe drought. In fact, only the northern tip of the Delta suffered from lack of rainfall.
The Delta is also finding success diversifying into tourism. Clarksdale is a great example.
Clarksdale has suffered as a generation of downtown merchants shut their doors upon retirement, unable to persuade their children or new acquirers to carry on. Low-wage, big-manufacturing fled to Mexico, then China. Hundreds of solid citizens relocated to Oxford.
But lately, I've noticed a nice resurgence of ads in the Clarksdale Press Register. The scrappy town is starting to regain its footing.
On a recent visit, I had lunch at the Oxbow Restaurant, devouring the best tuna tacos I've ever tasted. Twenty-four reviews on Trip Advisor give the husband and wife team five stars. Erica and Hayden Hall, the owners, are the type couple Clarksdale desperately needs to thrive. He learned to cook under Wolfgang Puck and she was a congressional aide in D.C. After years of big city life, they decided to make a commitment to their hometown and have renovated a beautiful home in the old heart of the city.
After lunch, real estate investor Bubba O'Keefe gave me a tour of his luxury rental units on the second floor of his historic downtown building. Every single one of his 35 reviews on Trip Advisor is five stars. There is no front desk, just an electronic keypad. It's all done by e-mail and texting. He has 70 percent occupancy at $180 a night.
Bubba and his partner Bill Talbot have also opened a sophisticated downtown coffee house and restaurant called the Delta Pass. Best espresso and macadamia nut cookies I have ever had. The Delta Pass is a social hub for the many Teach for America youngsters who have flocked to Clarksdale.
I first met Bubba when he asked me to sell him the old Press Register building downtown. Originally a bank, the building was way too big for us, needed a new roof, and was a bear to heat and cool.
Bubba renovated a smaller office across the street and has turned our old building into an events venue for weddings and social occasions. It's a great asset for the community. O'Keefe is also planning a 40-room downtown luxury hotel a la Greenwood's Alluvian. Nothing spurs a Delta town's tourist prospects like a luxury boutique hotel.
There were multiple music festivals going on that weekend, and walking down the street I stopped to listen to some gospel blues perfectly performed by a couple from Austin.
Talking to our new reporter, I asked him how he came to Clarksdale. A Texan at Ole Miss, he said there were only two places in Mississippi he was willing to live: the coast and Clarksdale.
This is something I'm noticing. Clarksdale is successfully earning a reputation as a hip, cool, progressive little city. Its blues theme is attracting visitors from around the world. The tourist hunting industry is exploding. Row crop prices are high to boot. Hopefully, a new police chief will tackle a nasty crime problem.
All in all, things are starting to look up for Clarksdale.