A Different Clarksdale

New Leadership, New Faces, New Businesses

By Greta Sharp    Photos by Austin Britt

If there is one word that characterizes today’s Clarksdale, it’s new. While this city is deeply rooted in the Delta and steeped in Blues history, Clarksdale is welcoming new faces armed with fresh ideas and enthusiasm.

Newly elected Mayor Chuck Espy is particularly pleased. “We’ve been very active in our first 100 days,” he stated. “If we could have that kind of activity every 100 days, it would be a whole different Clarksdale.”

Espy is partnering with former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton on a juvenile rehabilitation facility that will serve youth offenders from Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. The first phase of the program is a $6 million campus, with the second phase growing to $19 million, says Espy.

Clarksdale attracted a Wingstop franchise by packaging it as a Blues and Civil Rights-themed restaurant. Espy says the location will create 20 jobs. A new $3.5 million Head Start facility creates another 30 jobs, while a $28 million fitness center with an Olympic-sized pool creates 40 jobs.

“I knew we could rise to a whole new level,” Espy says. “We’re better than where we were. I knew we could be better. The proof is in the first 100 days.” Now he turns his attention to other concerns: accountability, quality of life, crime and economic development.

Sandra J. Williams is Clarksdale’s first female police chief. She brings 26 years of experience with the Vicksburg Police Department, 19 in the investigative division where she rose to the rank of captain. “We had a lot of crime that was going on and we solved a lot of crime, especially violent crime,” she explained. She also served 16 years in the military and has top security clearance.

“I’m very, very appreciative, I’m very, very grateful to Mayor Espy and to the committee who put their faith and trust in me and hired me to be the top cop within their city,” Williams says. In 2018, she wants to reduce crime, making Clarksdale a safer community for residents, and one that attracts new businesses and tourists.

“I also want to bridge the gap, if there is a gap, between the department and the citizens of this city through community policing, going out there into the community, getting to know the people we serve and protect,” Williams stated. “We need the community to be able to trust and depend on the police department.”

Another fresh face is Margarette Meeks, Clarksdale’s first female city attorney. She describes her position as a behind-the-scenes role, but one that concerns the day-to-day running of the city, ensuring that the processes are working and are pursuant to the law.

Originally from Greenwood, Meeks’ desire to return to the Delta drew her to the position, as did her love of government and service. She hopes to help the Delta become a place people choose—to live, to work, to raise families and be a part of the community.

“I am a product of the Mississippi Delta,” Meeks says. “I was born and raised in the Delta. I wanted to be a part of the solution. I’m so very grateful to have been given the opportunity to come home and to be a part of the team Mayor Espy has put together.”

Like many Delta Communities, Clarksdale focuses on attracting new jobs. Jon Levingston became executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Foundation in October 2017. One of his top goals is economic development, and he’s worked with former executive director Ron Hudson, city and county government, the Delta Council and other relevant organizations on ongoing projects.

“One thing I’ve learned: it takes a lot of people from all over the state to help retain or attract industry to a small community,” Levingston explained. “We will continue to work diligently and hard with all our partners to bring new jobs to Clarksdale and Coahoma County.”

In addition, Levingston feels there are many unappreciated qualities close to home. “Clarksdale offers an exceptional quality of life for its residents one can never find in larger communities, and our cost of living is relatively low,” he explained. “And while we don’t offer some of the amenities of larger cities, they are almost all accessible only a little over an hour from here. We must do a better job of promoting the best we offer to ourselves, as well as to the rest of the world.”

Current chamber president Rose Lockett plans to reengage the business community. “We want to be more visible in the business community so as to show our involvement in pursuing and recruiting other businesses to come to Coahoma County and employ our citizens,” she explained.

This involves educating new and established businesses on how the chamber can spur the local economy. “In other words, we need to open a line of communication so that businesses will know that we are truly here for them,” Lockett says.

As part of this effort, the chamber is partnering with Coahoma Community College and its workforce development center to provide skills training. Coahoma County is also working to attain ACT Work Ready Community certification. Part of this entails working with local schools to take the job skills assessment so area businesses can identify skilled candidates. “This will help employers select, hire, train and develop a high-performing workforce, which will be invaluable for attracting other businesses to the area,” Lockett explained.

Northwest Mississippi Medical Center recently partnered with Curae Health, which focuses exclusively on rural hospitals and communities. “This allows us the ability to give more attention to the services we provide to our communities,” explained CEO Joel Southern.

Over the next few months, Southern says the medical center is working on several initiatives. These include developing plans to address the needs of the community, employees and medical staff, and directing efforts toward these opportunities.

“Our goal in 2018 is to add new services and upgrade the facility so patients do not need to travel long distances for their health care needs,” Southern stated. “This effort reverses patient departures to other communities and also adds new jobs at the local level.”

Tourism continues to be a major engine in Clarksdale. “We really do have so much to offer,” says Coahoma County Tourism Commission Executive Director Kappi Allen. “We are the only place in the Delta and throughout a lot of the state that does have live music seven nights a week.”

Allen attends trade shows, places advertising and leverages social media to promote Clarksdale. “It’s a lot of word of mouth as well,” she explained. “When someone has a great experience, they go back and spread the word. We seem to have built so many relationships with our guests, our tourists, they feel that sense of place, of belonging.”

Many people are attracted to Clarkdale’s authenticity and slower pace. “You can come to Clarksdale and be a local,” Allen says. And many people have, including Australians Naomi Casaceli and Johnny Cass who opened a restaurant called Levon’s. “They bring an Australian flair to some of their dishes and he has just begun baking fresh bread,” says Allen.

Casaceli says Clarksdale is well known among Australians. “There’s a really strong Blues scene in Sydney and Melbourne,” she explained. “For a lot of Australians, this is a pilgrimage—Nashville to New Orleans. Every single day we’re open, there’s at least one group of Australians coming through.”

She and Cass made their own Clarksdale pilgrimage in 2013. Two years later, they visited twice and on the second trip decided to move to Clarksdale.

Levon’s has expanded once and another expansion is in progress, in addition to the bakery. “There’s a lot more business here than you’d think,” Casaceli says. “We had to work very hard to be accepted, but we have been and now are one of the places people choose to go. People in Clarksdale like to go out.”

And when guests dine at Levon’s, they often order the Australian and New Zealand lamb dishes. Thanks to the bakery, the restaurant is also known for its biscuits. These are part of another Levon’s specialty, the Delta Benedict.

Robin Colonas also came to Clarksdale as a Blues tourist, and kept returning. “I came for the music and I stayed for the people,” says Colonas. “It’s a quirky, eclectic group of nice people, small-town Southern charm. I call this my home.”

In 2008, Colonas purchased the New Roxy, a former cinema, mainly to keep the historic property from being demolished. After sitting vacant for 30 years, it’s now an event space.

Colonas added a roof over the stage in 2010. “Everybody began to appreciate the ambiance of it being an open-air venue,” she explained. While this was unique, weather and a lack of bathrooms limited its use. In 2014, she began another major renovation.

While today the New Roxy is open for special events and festivals, Colonas’ job as a Merchant Marine takes her away four to six months out of the year. “It was never my intention to try to become a Blues club owner,” she says. “I wanted the space to be used by the community in any way possible.” This includes film festivals, live theater, music concerts and private parties.

“The New Roxy is a very, very cool place,” says Allen. “The people who move here are exactly the people who are Clarksdale. They are creative, think-outside-the-box people who have visited here and seen opportunities. That has been such a boost in the tourism climate here.”

Many tourists appreciate the Delta Blues Museum. “We largely have repeat visitors and we build on them,” says Director Shelley Ritter. “We do have a lot and we change exhibits often to try to have lots of fresh exhibits and programs so they have a unique experience each time they come to the museum.”

The museum recently completed plans for a permanent exhibit of Brandon Thibodeaux’s black and white Delta photography. Ritter expects the exhibit to open in the spring and run through the Juke Joint Festival. Last year’s Monday Movie Nights proved so successful that Ritter is already planning 2018’s schedule.

The Delta Blues Museum is celebrating its 39th year in January. Ritter expects the Delta Blues Museum Birthday Bash on Tuesday, Jan. 30, to be a daylong party with cake and music. Ritter is also celebrating the operating grant the museum received from the Mississippi Arts Commission.