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Up and down the Mississippi to Helena

For two consecutive mornings, I sipped my first cup of coffee and discovered that the lead story in the morning newspaper concerned the massive drug trafficking ring that operated out of Helena until recently.

“Drug dealer fell through court cracks” read the headline on the lead front-page story Wednesday morning.

“Drug kingpin in Delta case gets 40 years” read the headline on the lead front-page story Thursday morning.

“Poor ol’ Helena,” people across Arkansas no doubt said as they glanced at those headlines.

I’ve written a lot about Helena on this blog through the years. I’m fascinated by the place. I love its history and its culture. I have a number of friends who live there and work daily to try to restore some of its past glory.

I can point to several positive changes that have occurred there during the past decade.

“Since the 1980s, Helena has seen a steady stream of factory closings and job losses and an exodus of residents who could afford to move,” said a recent cover story in Arkansas Business. “In their wake, they left blighted buildings, a countywide poverty rate above 32 percent and police corruption that allowed a drug culture to operate with impunity.

“With some 70 alleged or confessed criminals out of the picture, a lively nonprofit community has even more latitude to continue work that Mayor Arnell Willis calls ‘pivotal’ for the city’s economy and quality of life.”

Among the positive developments has been Helena’s increased focus on attracting heritage tourists — those Americans who want to see what’s historic, gritty and real rather than spending their vacations at amusement parks or houses on the beach.

Heritage tourists tend to be highly educated and have plenty of money to spend. They’re fascinated by things such as the Delta Cultural Center’s music exhibits and the daily “King Biscuit Time” radio show that broadcasts from there.

They flock to events such as the King Biscuit Blues Festival, which is held each October in Helena.

In addition to capitalizing on its music culture, Helena also can capitalize on its river heritage. It was a popular stopping place for the steamboats that once plied the Mississippi River.

Earlier this month, the American Queen, the world’s largest paddle wheeler steamboat, resumed its travels along the Mississippi River.

Helena’s business and civic leaders should make it a priority to ensure that the city is a regular stop for the American Queen. Six American Queen visits to Helena are planned for this year.

“We need to strike out in new and different areas rather than the same old tired, failed economic development strategies of the past,” says Lee Powell, who heads the Delta Grassroots Caucus. “Tourism is one area where we can do a lot more than we have in the past.”

The 418-foot American Queen completed its training voyage from New Orleans to Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana on April 10-12. The American Queen, which now is under the management of the Great American Steamboat Co., can carry 436 passengers and will be the only paddle wheel steamer making overnight voyages through America’s heartland.

The boat had spent several years docked in Texas.

“The American Queen has fabulous dining rooms and great food, observation decks to get a view of the natural splendor of the Mississippi and a beautiful music hall where talented musicians perform blues, jazz and other music of the Delta region,” says Powell, who was on the training voyage.

Future tours will focus on areas such as Southern culture, literature and the Civil War.

Tour buses will pick people up at stops along the river and take them into cities such as Helena.

“For a small, economically distressed community like Helena-West Helena, to have more than 400 prosperous tourists spend some time and tourist dollars and learn about the history and culture of the community is a big plus,” Powell says.

The home port for the American Queen will be Memphis.

The U.S. Maritime Administration signed off last year on the sale of the steamboat to the Great American Steamboat Co.

The city of Memphis made a $9 million advance from its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan fund and also worked to complete the Beale Street Landing project at the foot of Beale Street.

Company executives had approached tourism officials in Tunica, Miss., about being the home port for the American Queen. The Tunica folks wanted a prohibition on the boat stopping in Memphis, something Great American Steamboat Co. officials wouldn’t agree to.

“We spent six months in another state working with the economic development authority,” says CEO Jeff Krida. “They struggled with understanding what this business does.”

In exchange for the $9 million, Memphis received a promise that the company will buy 7,000 to 10,000 room nights a year in downtown hotels. The loan will be repaid with the $89 boarding fee each passenger pays at the outset of a trip.

A substantial investor in the venture is AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde’s Pittco Management. Many of the cruises will begin or end in Memphis at an average cost of $500 per person daily.

Wayne Risher wrote in The Commercial Appeal at Memphis of the preparations for the first voyage: “With red, white and blue bunting draped over railings, it was stately as ever on the outside: a gingerbread-trimmed six-decker that has been compared to a floating wedding cake. Inside, the scene was chaotic as a $6 million overhaul entered the home stretch.

“It was like owners of some mythical Delta hotel decided to rebuild, refurbish and redecorate simultaneously. What’s more, they had invited thousands of guests to attend a housewarming and stay for 10 days. … Carpet layers, carpenters, electricians, engineers, IT specialists, sound technicians, housekeepers, cooks and musicians swarmed aboard.

“A crew from Miami turned the purser’s lobby into an impromptu factory. A Latin beat pulsated over the whine of sewing machines and staccato bursts of upholstery guns, repairing and recovering chairs and cushions.

“In the Grand Saloon, patterned after Ford’s Theater in Washington, technicians adjusted a sound board that will serve the Harry James Orchestra, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and others. Music stands identified the house band: the Steamboat Syncopators.

“Engineers fired up the steam boiler and exercised the ancient, cast-iron pistons that drive a newly reconstructed, 28-foot diameter, 31-foot-wide paddle wheel.”

The Delta Queen, now docked on the Tennessee River at Chattanooga, Tenn., went out of service in 2008. Overnight passenger cruises ended on the Mississippi River at that point.

The Delta Queen is now a floating boutique hotel.

The American Queen was built at the McDermott Shipyard in Morgan City, La., in 1995. It has a retractable pilot house that can lower almost 14 feet in three minutes to allow clearance under bridges.

The American Queen’s previous owners also operated the Delta Queen, completed in 1927, and the Mississippi Queen, completed in 1976.

A cruise beginning today and lasting until April 27 will put the American Queen in Memphis, where rechristening ceremonies will be led by Priscilla Presley. A stop in Helena is planned for the seventh day of the eight-day cruise.

A voyage from Memphis to Cincinnati is scheduled for April 27-May 4.

“From a purely economic standpoint, the American Queen will actually have an even bigger impact than the Delta Queen because it is twice as big,” Powell says. “Steam tours are fairly expensive so we’re talking about large numbers of affluent tourists being unloaded at places like Helena. They can spend a good chunk of money in a couple of tourist stops.”

He says the cruises will “inform people about our region and have an educational as well as an economic impact. People travel on the American Queen from all over the world. They will take back home with them an interest in the Delta region that in many cases will have potential for future returns in our region.”

By the way, data tracking in Mississippi State University’s Mid-South Delta Data Library found that the population of Phillips County, which has been declining steadily for almost 60 years, grew by 4 percent from 2009 to 2010.

The return of Helena as a steamboat stop can only improve that positive trend.

Here’s hoping historic Helena is considered a “must stop” along the river.

It would be nice to be able to say: “Drug dealers like Sedrick ‘Binky’ Trice are out; tourists with lots of money to spend are in.”

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