By Greta Sharp
As the new year dawns in Clarksdale, this is a city filled with anticipation. Hard work and persistence paid off in December when Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jon Levingston announced that PeopleShores selected Clarksdale for its second U.S. center.
“We secured for them a suitable building and they made a commitment to begin training prospective employees by mid-January 2019,” said Levingston. “Their plan is to begin with fifty employees and scale to 200 in the following twenty-four months…Locating PeopleShores in Clarksdale may be the single greatest economic development project in our community in over forty years.”
PeopleShores is the American version of RuralShores, an Indian company co-founded by Murali Vullaganti. It delivers technology and business process outsourcing services. Levingston said Dinesh and Parveen Chawla of Cleveland made the introduction.
“One of the most satisfying aspects of this project has been the support and cooperation from every aspect of our community and region to help bring PeopleShores to Clarksdale,” said Levingston. “I especially wish to acknowledge the outstanding support of our mayor, Chuck Espy, and our city board of commissioners, as well as the president of our board of supervisors, Paul Pearson, and his fellow county supervisors.”
This comes on the heels of 2018’s expansion at the MAP of Easton plant, which produces molded acoustical products for automobiles. The resulting increase in employment, as well as new contracts, grew the company’s payroll by almost $2,000,000, which Levingston said translates into an increase in economic activity in the area by some $8,000,000.
Accomplishments result from preparation. SafTCart Vice President Jim Herring said Mississippi has the best workforce development network in the country, and local workforce development plays a major role with his company. “Anything we ask them to do, they jump on it,” he explained. This ranges from classes to purchasing equipment for training.
Many locals prepare for careers at Coahoma Community College. “Health sciences is our most prominent program,” said Chief Communications Officer Marriel Hardy. “We have wonderful graduation rates, and students are passing the state boards with no problems.”
The college partnered with Chawla Hotels to create the Chawla Hospitality Academy. Participants train in programs including front desk agent, housekeeping and quality control inspector, with on-site and hands-on experience, said Hardy. The first class graduated last fall.
Area businesses are prospering. “We’re very blessed with good business,” said Herring. “We can’t build it fast enough. We’re an anchor company in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re growing and expanding.”
Local businessman Elvin Yawn made his mark with three businesses. Southern Duplicating began in 1988 with two employees. Today it has more than fifty employees in eleven locations across Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia, with two new locations planned for 2019. The Clarksdale chamber awarded Southern Duplicating its “Small Business Award” in 2017.
Southern Shredders offering on-site shredding. “We started with a truck and trailer with zero customers in 2004 and how have over 300 customers and a mobile truck with built-in shredder,” Yawn reported. He also owns Coahoma Country Club.
Customer service has been essential to Yawn’s success. “We hire local people from the community at each location that knows and understands their market,” he said. “You will never have to call a 1-800 number and talk with someone that has no idea who you are or where you are located.”
More specifically, family is an integral part of Yawn’s plan. Wife Debra Yawn manages the bookkeeping, son Brad Yawn runs the Hattiesburg office and daughter Stephanie Lusk and her husband, Jeff, handle the Cleveland office. Long-time staff member Billy Steen serves as general manager.
A bank built in the 1930s is one of Clarksdale’s hottest venues: Events at the Bank. “It has a big, open floor plan that really works well for all different kinds of events,” said Venue Manager Hannah Peay. It opened as a rental space about five years ago.
Events at the Bank is popular for wedding receptions, fundraisers and balls, as well as parties from 50 to 700 guests. It’s also available for luncheons and corporate meetings.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for anyone to host an event,” explained Peay. The space includes a prep kitchen with a separate entrance. The housekeeping staff handles setup and cleaning, and tables, chairs, tablecloths and chair covers are available.
“It’s right in the middle of downtown,” said Peay. “There’s street parking everywhere and it’s all free, and it’s close to all the downtown lodging options, all within walking distance.”
Suresh Chawla has two hotels in Clarksdale, with a third closed for renovations and reopening this spring. He is president of Chawla Hotels and the new Clarksdale chamber president.
In 2009, Chawla was an officer at the Greenwood chamber, which he described as suffering a financial deficit due to the recession. “I was part of a team, along with Bill Crump and Michael Joe Cannon, that helped turn the chamber around,” he said.
In 2011, he served as vice president of the Greenville chamber, where he found the members disillusioned by the leadership. Chawla said he helped clean house, installing directors like Cary Karlson, who revived the chamber and industrial development foundation.
“Now I hope to be part of something special for the Clarksdale and Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce,” Chawla said. “I feel like the volunteer effort is there, but we need to reorganize and revitalize the committees and their purpose. I think the chamber should have a vital part in the social fabric of that area, including efforts to bring in young leaders and professionals to get involved.”
There have been a few stumbles in Clarksdale. The year began with Kroger’s closing, but Levingston sees excellent prospects for a new grocer in the space. More alarming was the potential closing of Northwest Mississippi Medical Center. Pearson has served on the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors since 1996, and said the chance of the hospital closing was a serious concern for the board.
The county owned the hospital until 1996, then leased it to a series of companies including HMA and CHS. In 2017 Curae purchased the lease from CHS, but then felt they were unable to keep the facility open.
However, a caveat in the purchase agreement said CHS would come back to operate the hospital, paying the lease and taxes if Curae was unable. That began on Dec. 10; until that point, the county subsidized Curae to keep the facility open. “CHS stepped up to the plate and honored that agreement,” said Pearson. “They could have argued the point and kept it in court for years.”
The process was possible, explained Pearson, because HMA paid the county $30 million when it took over the hospital. The board set those funds aside in case of this very event. “We’re able to use part of that money to subsidize payroll and keep the hospital open,” he said. “It was invested over the years in something safe, but we still never wanted to do anything to jeopardize it.”
This long-range planning is nothing new to any Delta business, said Pearson. “This has been a bad situation, but it’s a great opportunity,” he stressed. The county can determine how the facility needs to change. “The hospital is going to be stable, be safe and generate revenue,” he said. There are interested parties looking at the hospital.
Pearson explained the board’s fight to keep the hospital open. “First and foremost, you’ve got to have health care,” he said. “You’ve got to provide health care for the citizens in your community and the surrounding communities.” The hospital, with 460 jobs, is the county’s second-largest employer after the casino. “Payroll is around $80,000 a day,” he said.
Clarksdale is also looking to promote its amenities and attract visitors. The mayor has a plan for a multi-use ballpark/recreation area/convention center complex just off Highway 49 near the Highway 61 bypass.
“The seventy-acre, multimillion-dollar endeavor has progressed steadily and we anticipate a groundbreaking in 2019,” said Levingston. “When the complex is fully realized, it will have a significant economic impact on our region of the Delta.”
Bill Luckett, former mayor and co-owner of Ground Zero Blues Club knows Clarksdale has a lot to offer.
“We’re culturally rich,” Luckett said. “Housing is affordable. We’re in the middle of great hunting and Memphis and Oxford within easy driving distance. The woods and the river draw duck hunters, turkey hunters, deer hunters. This area is a haven for hunting enthusiast.”
“It’s a laid-back way of life, but good to know you have options for bigger city and other activities that are close by. Delta State, Ole Miss and the University of Memphis are all close and there are cultural programs at all of those universities.”
Ken Murphey is the owner of Murphey Beverage and has been a Clarksdale City Commissioner for six years.
“There’s a saying here, ‘people come for the blues but they return for the experience and the people,” Murphey said. “We’re proud of what we have here, what we have been and what we can be.”
“We have more international tourism per capita than any other area of the state, and I would dare say in the country. Blues is drawing people here from all over the world. We work with what we have and we are thankful to have such a great tourism draw.”
“We have a twenty-room hotel coming in downtown. The Travelers Hotel, is being renovated by Bubba O’Keefe, Chuck Rutledge, Anne Williams and Anne Rutledge. The team is redoing the hotel with some grants and some tax credits. It was a hotel back in the 1930s where train engineers and conductors would bed up.”
“It looks like 2019 will be a great year for Clarksdale, Mississippi.”
Tourism is an industry in Clarksdale and the Delta Blues Museum is celebrating forty years in January, but the party doesn’t end then. “On Jan. 31, there will be cake and music to celebrate, but we’ll celebrate throughout the year,” Director Shelley Ritter said. The museum is also partnering with local festivals for special events.
As a fortieth anniversary wish, Ritter wants the museum to double its membership support. “This provides basic funding and support for museum projects and programs,” she explained.
A Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area grant is allowing the museum to work with a local filmmaker, documenting its accomplishments over forty years. A National Endowment for the Humanities grant is bringing new permanent exhibits in 2019. Thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts grant, museum students can cut a CD, said Ritter.
From small businesses to large manufacturing operations, people are dedicated to this city. “We have an obligation to the people of Clarksdale,” said SafTCart’s Herring. “We’re going to do everything we can to help the community.”
For Yawn and his businesses, this includes supporting youth activities, schools, civic clubs and churches, as well as being active chamber members in most of its locations.
At Coahoma Community College, resources help ensure student success. These include a food pantry, a career closet with interview clothing, mentoring programs and a career center. “We really want to be the college that cares,” said Hardy. “We take a holistic approach to student success so they can be successful alumni.”
For Pearson, this is just part of the fabric of the area. “Coahoma County has and always will, when things get tough, pull together and made it right.”
Thanks to its enhanced economic activity, Clarksdale’s enthusiasm is contagious. “A lot of big things are about to happen in Clarksdale in the next year and I’m excited to be along for the ride,” said Chawla.