by Ryan Nix, Photos by Jamison Mosley
Far in the northeast corner of Arkansas, five miles west of the Mississippi River, the city of Blytheville remembers a prosperous past while hoping for a bright future. This gateway to the Arkansas Delta appears to be in something of a downward slump, but many residents believe their fortunes will soon reverse; that the past three decades of decline are just growing pains.
Blytheville’s Revolving Industry
This belief holds water when you look at the history of Blytheville, which is a history of continual transition. First settled as a lumber boomtown in the late 19th century, the clear-cut forests revealed fertile Delta soil, leading to a strong agricultural economy. When large-scale mechanization required fewer hands to work the land, Blytheville experienced economic difficulties until the steel industry arrived in the 1980’s, prompted by the city’s convenient proximity to the Mississippi and available workforce.
“Blytheville is one of the steel capitals of the country,” says Liz Smith, executive director of the Blytheville Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, Mississippi County is one of the top three steel-producing counties in the nation, employing more than 5,000 people with average salaries reaching $85,000, although most workers commute to the Nucor and Big River Steel mills. “A lot of our workers live elsewhere, especially younger people, who are trending toward urban living,” says Smith.
Beyond heavy metal, Blytheville’s agricultural community still holds strong. According to its profile in the 2017 USDA agricultural census, Mississippi County is the fourth-largest crop producing county in Arkansas, ranking No. 1 in cotton, while taking the silver in rice and soybeans. Additionally, its 92,385 acres of cotton make it the 15th largest cotton producer in the nation, with some of the largest cotton gins in the world.
Blytheville’s strong manufacturing and agricultural industries remain steady, which begs the question: Why has the city’s population dropped by more than 55 percent since its peak in 1970? While much can be attributed to the common decline of rural Delta communities, the proximate cause behind Blytheville’s fall is rooted in international politics. Like Yakov Smirnoff’s comedy (“In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, the Party can always find you!”) and the Berlin Wall, Blytheville fell victim to the end of the Cold War.
Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the 1955 opening of the Blytheville Air Force Base, bringing thousands of airmen and their families to the area and huge federal investment in the area’s infrastructure and economy. During the Cuban missile crisis, two Blytheville-based B-52G bombers took to the skies on high alert, ready to strike the Soviets with nuclear weapons if necessary. Thankfully, the situation was resolved peacefully before Blytheville, Arkansas, became immortalized for kicking off an apocalyptic thermonuclear war.
The Blytheville base, later renamed Eaker Air Force Base, aided subsequent military operations until the fall of the Soviet Union. Without another global superpower to oppose, the U.S. Air Force shuttered many bases around the country including Eaker in 1991. The impact of this closure and withdrawal of 3,500 airmen and their families can’t be understated. In one year, enrollment at Blytheville’s Arkansas Northeast College dropped by 20 percent; the Gosnell School District lost half of its students, and the county’s unemployment rate rose by 5 percent, in large part due to the loss of 700 civilian jobs at Eaker. In nine years, nearly 5,000 permanent residents would leave the city.
While Blytheville has not yet recovered from this setback and its population continues to fall, many within the city are optimistic about the future, believing Blytheville can be revitalized with a lot of work and a bit of luck.
Uplift Through Education
“Really, everything we do is an effort to reverse the population and economic decline,” says Smith. “Right now, we’re in the middle of a program called ‘Restore, Rebuild, Renew,’ the first step of which is tearing down dilapidated housing and replacing it with quality homes.”
Smith points to the high poverty rate as one of Blytheville’s biggest problems and has championed efforts to increase literacy and improve education to address it. “We sponsor the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, wherein kids can sign up and receive a free book every month. About 300 kids here are part of the program,” she says.
Another attempt at improving area schools is Blytheville’s implementation of school choice, which Smith and others hope will attract young families.
“We have multiple school systems right here, and we felt that a lot of people were not moving here because they didn’t want their children going to Blytheville Public Schools, which haven’t had great grades,” says Smith. “This way children can be sent to Gosnell or Amorel schools if their parents choose to.”
Erin Carrington, school board member and owner of Langston Cotton, also is a school choice supporter.
“People are not going to move into town and pay taxes if their children have to attend a failing school,” says Carrington. “Also, it forces competition between schools, and I think that’s great.” Carrington believes that competition will cause the Blytheville School District to strive to match its neighbors. “I just don’t think taking away choice is going to help. Blytheville has lost students, but I think that will force necessary changes in the classroom to improve academics,” she says.
As for post-secondary education, Blytheville is home to the Arkansas Northeastern College (ANC), a community college founded in 1975. ANC has a surprisingly impressive collection of accolades. Not only are its associate’s programs the most affordable in the state, ANC graduates have a higher average income ($51,624) in their first year out of school than all other Arkansas college or university undergraduate degree holders with the exception of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Dr. James Shemwell, president of the ANC system, attributes this success to two factors: Career-oriented programs and proactive career placement for its students.
“We’ve developed programs that are focused on sending students into high-demand, high-wage careers,” he says. “Another reason why our graduates earn so much more than other associate’s degree holders is because we do a great job with career placement; most other two-year colleges don’t do that because state funding doesn’t reward it.”
According to Shemwell, ANC focuses on building strong relationships with employers, providing valuable networking opportunities for its students.
“About 80 percent of our relationships are with companies in Mississippi County; a lot of our students can find great careers right here, and we really focus on placing our students in these careers,” says Shemwell. ANC has also felt the effects of Blytheville’s decline. “We’ve been affected. There are fewer high school students than 10 or 20 years ago, but out of those who are graduating more of them go to college, which is good,” says Shemwell.
Speaking on the population decline, Smith believes, “It’s a complex issue, and characteristic of this side of the state, in the Delta. The Chamber is making an effort to improve the quality of life, the appearance of the city, safety and education.”
Smith points to improving these areas as necessary to bring in new, younger citizens. “We’ve already seen some of that, an influx of young professionals coming in who can reach a certain high quality of life here much earlier, while being close to big cities like Memphis or St. Louis,” she says.
One of those young professionals is the aforementioned Carrington, who was born in Blytheville, received education in Connecticut, France and at Rhodes College in Memphis, and returned home hoping to bring Blytheville the cultural benefits she experienced out in the world. Aside from her work at Langston Cotton, Carrington co-founded Ibis Development with her husband Andrew, who also owns Delta Cartage. The Ibis Development Group has purchased more than 35 downtown Blytheville properties with the explicit intention of fostering the sort of downtown revitalization seen in other Arkansas cities. She started with opening the Blytheville Book Company.
The Blytheville Book Company (BBC) opened in the wake of That Bookstore in Blytheville, which recently closed permanently. “I grew up in That Bookstore, and I wanted to continue its legacy with BBC, and I hope it’ll serve as a lynchpin for downtown Blytheville’s revitalization,” says Carrington. “We’re trying to bring books and albums, new wines, beers and coffee that people in Mississippi County might not otherwise experience.” She’s also arranged to have signed copies of John Grisham’s next novel in stock.
“Through Ibis, we hope to build a bustling downtown area with the bookstore as the cultural anchor,” says Carrington. “We’re about to begin developing loft spaces above storefronts, so we can have living spaces downtown as well, so people can live, work, eat and shop downtown.” According to Carrington, “We’re really trying to put in businesses that improve quality of life. We’re talking to restaurant owners, and we’re trying to get a new movie theater put in, things people can enjoy here other than working.”
Carrington believes resurgence is entirely possible for Blytheville. “We’re at a cross-section of I-55 and I-40; St. Louis and Memphis are very close; the Mississippi River is only a couple of miles away; we’ve got active rail lines and the Blytheville Aeroplex,” says Carrington. “We’ve got these incredible assets, we’ve got the right people and this great history. It’s just a question of how to leverage all this and get us moving back in the right direction.”
Speaking of history, one of the most exciting things happening in Blytheville is happening right where things first went sour for the city, at the old Blytheville Air Force Base — now called the Blytheville Aeroplex — where the city is planning to invest $20 million dollars into building a National Cold War Museum.
“We’ve got a high level of excitement from the state and federal government, and people around the country,” says Smith. Projected to spread over 250 acres at the former air base, the museum will consist of several exhibits, with the base’s original Cold War alert facility, a decommissioned B-52 bomber and a KC-35 tanker serving as the crown jewels.
“Naturally we’re going to focus on the Air Force, but we’ll also have a ton of interactive exhibits about the entire history of the Cold War,” says Smith.
The museum’s planning committee estimates that the museum will attract 50,000 visitors to Blytheville every year.
“That amount of tourism would be huge, especially for retail businesses,” says Carrington.
Smith agrees. “Even if it doesn’t necessarily bring in permanent residents, the money from the museum would really go a long way in putting Blytheville back on the map,” she says.
City officials hope the Cold War Museum will be fully operational in four years. In the meantime, the museum’s organization will open the Blytheville Air Force Base exhibition, a miniature museum which will highlight key points in the base’s history and provide a preview of the larger structure to come.
“I think that any tourists or people who come here will be surprised at how friendly and warm our community is,” says Smith. “It’s very hardworking, as well. Blytheville is in trouble, but not dead by any means. We have a great group of leaders and people.”
There’s an interesting, hopeful feeling in Blytheville that is unusual, especially compared to other small, struggling Delta communities. One cause could be the city’s active industries, convenient location and thriving community college, but this warmth also seems to pour out from its people. As community leaders make plans to put Blytheville back on the right track, its citizens are energetic and hopeful for their city’s future.