Rural Resurgence: Keeping small towns alive

One side of the Piggott square (Source: KAIT)
One side of the Piggott square (Source: KAIT)
Holly Williams (Source: Jonas Jungblut)
Holly Williams (Source: Jonas Jungblut)
Joe and Tracy Cole (Source: KAIT)
Joe and Tracy Cole (Source: KAIT)
Becton Bell, mayor of Wilson (Source: KAIT)
Becton Bell, mayor of Wilson (Source: KAIT)

WILSON, AR (KAIT) - It's no secret rural Arkansas is struggling. From schools closing to infrastructure to population, many towns can't stay afloat.

But some parts of Region 8 have found ways to keep the small-town way of life alive.

While nearly 70 miles away from each other, Piggott and Wilson are two places trying to bring in new businesses while also staying true to their roots.

As Jim Poole, mayor of Piggott, put it, small towns are built on not only a commitment to family and community.

"A lot of concentration on what human values are, moral values, and Christianity," Poole said.

But he knows, like many others, that it's not as easy to find those anymore.

"I hate that small-town America is getting whittled away," said Holly Williams.

With a population of just under 4,000, Piggott's town square once sat empty.

It's now completely full, with three businesses owned by Joe and Tracy Cole.

"As long as the Piggott square was vibrant, the city would be vibrant," Joe said.

Originally from Piggott, Joe and Tracy lived in Memphis for 25 years.

"I took advantage of the opportunity," Joe said. "It was a lot more money, a lot more exposure."

While he enjoyed his time in Tennessee, after so many years away from home, it was time to come back.

"Wanted to do something different, our parents were of the age where they needed some help," Joe said.

Joe and Tracy intended on retiring in Piggott, but that is not what happened.

"There are a lot of things I had in my heart when I was younger and forgot about, and now that we are back I realize that God's brought them out now," Tracy said.

One of those things was to become a business owner.

Joe and Tracy own a 9-unit bed and breakfast called The Inn at Piggott that they live under. Joe's law office is across the street, and across the way is the Piggott City Market.

"We have met so many people and reacquainted with so many people," Tracy said. "Being at the bed and breakfast you see people that come in that you haven't seen in years that are coming home to visit family. But then you also meet all these people that come to Piggott purposefully."

The Coles and Mayor Poole agree while investing in business is crucial, it's a rich history that keeps Piggott alive.

"From Ernest Hemingway writing A Farewell to Arms here to Andy Griffith coming to do his first movie here--A Face in the Crowd with Elia Kazan," Joe said. "The people associated with the filming of that movie, the politicians that have come through here like Bill Clinton."

The stories of the past helping to bring in more people leading to new opportunities for new chains such as the new Sonic.  

"We continually try to make contacts," Poole said. "Every month we try to make contacts for industry."

Industry that compliments the museums, the hospital, the school, and the square.

"You want to see it develop," Poole said. "You want to see it for future generations to still survive so they know what it is."

Which is why Joe and Tracy use their businesses to help further that goal.

The Piggott City Market is a place for local craftspeople to sell their work.

"We have a lot of people that have put their products in here that we try to sell, but we've also opened it up for like Hemingway-Pfeiffer," Tracy said.

Tracy partners specifically with the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum from serving food to their visitors to housing writers in the inn or their loft above the market.

"Looking for ways to bring people here to expose them," Tracy said.

Expose them to what Piggott has to offer.

"I would guess that we are utilizing probably 8% of the tourism potential that we have in this small town, and if we could just push that to 20% or 25% we wouldn't miss the absence of factories," Joe said.

The town is trying to tap into the tourism potential with an annual car show and other attractions.

Leaving Piggott for over 20 years allowed the Coles to explore and learn. Tracy said it's okay to want to get out of your small town but don't give up on it.

"Go get their education, get their experience, but come back and invest in the community," Tracy said. "It has a lot of potential."

Potential just like that of another small town south of Piggott.

With a historic town square also being a focal point of the community's success, Wilson's story is a bit different.

With a population of 903, Wilson has been able to grow thanks to Gaylon and Lisa Lawrence.

Becton Bell, mayor of Wilson, has worked closely with the Lawrences since his election in 2013.

"They bought the Wilson family farm in 2010, and they really took an interest in the town," Bell said.

Bell said Gaylon helped bring people and new business to town.

If you talk to two business owners in Wilson, they will tell you Gaylon and Lisa's vision encouraged them to open shop.

Holly Williams owns White's Mercantile which sits right across the street from the square.

She's a mother, singer, songwriter, business owner, and daughter of Hank Williams Junior.

"I got my first record deal in 2004," Williams said in a phone interview.

She credits Gaylon and Lisa Lawrence for reaching out to her about opening her once Tennessee-based business in the Arkansas Delta.

"This was just something where I loved the town," Williams said. "I loved the story."

While they aren't making millions in Wilson, Williams said it's a store that has something for everyone.

"If we can put something somewhere and it can sustain itself and it can help the town grow, that's what I was all about," Williams said.

She wanted to support what many consider our country's foundation-rural America.

"There are some people who still desire to be in a small town to open up a shop in a small town, and I just hope that that's what it means for our country that people can continue that dream and not everyone has to feel like, you know, I have to move to a big city," Williams said.

Across from White's is the Wilson Café, owner Joseph Cartwright and his wife were recruited to Wilson from Memphis.

"It's not what you might expect to find out in the middle of rural Arkansas," Cartwright said.

Many of his Memphis colleagues questioned why they would come to Wilson to open a restaurant, but Cartwright also wanted a certain way of life.

"We can get off work on a Sunday afternoon and be floating [on the river] literally in a matter of 15 or 20 minutes," Cartwright said.

While they aren't Wilson natives, Cartwright has found a love for small-town life.

"In Memphis, you were part of the big thing doing a big thing, and here you are vital to that thing," Cartwright said.

Vital in the way that many depend on the Wilson Café to be open and ready to serve.

"In a place like this, you get to know people," Cartwright said.

It was the vision for Wilson that encouraged Cartwright, like many others to invest.

"When those people talk about what the plans are for the future, there's not a lot of ifs in those conversations," Cartwright said. "There's not a lot of if we get this done we will do this. It's when we get this done this is going to happen."

Mayor Bell is part of those plans and said while sticking to your roots is important, you've got to be innovative.

"You've got to have new ideas and new things to offer or the young couples aren't going to want to come here and raise their families," Bell said.

With the Delta School, new and staple businesses, the steel mill down the road, Bell said their success is a group effort of old residents and new people coming to town.

But for those places without a famous history to tout or an influential family to invest, Bell said it takes someone to take a chance on the community.

"I've seen it pay off," Bell said. "It can pay off. You don't have to have someone of Mr. Lawrence's status come to town. A community can do this."

Joe agrees that it starts with showing people there is hope.

"There are things that we can do and seeing something beyond their own bottom line," Joe said.

Because no matter where you are from, at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself what is truly important?

"That drive for power, wealth, success, notoriety, at the end of the day it means nothing," Tracy said.

A small town's worth doesn't lie within the bottom line, but the people that live there.

"When my father passed away, I had a police officer, someone from the mortuary, and they didn't just do their business, they stood there and cried," Tracy said. "They hugged me. It was wonderful to have that kind of support."

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