I had the opportunity to visit Helena, Arkansas a few weeks ago as part of some work I’m doing with Walton Family Foundation grantees along the Lower Mississippi River. I arrived in Memphis on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and ate lunch just a short drive from the Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot. I then drove Highway 61, the Blues Highway, to arrive in Helena, Arkansas, crossing the Mississippi River.
Helena, Arkansas is home to the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival and has quite a bit of Civil War history (home to the Battle of Helena). It is also the only downtown on the Mississippi River for 300 miles between Memphis and New Orleans. There are a multitude of reasons to visit Helena, most notably its historic downtown Cherry Street, unique natural assets (including the Mississippi River and state and national lands), and rich blues heritage.
On my trip, I was lucky enough to go on a 2 hour tour of the area’s natural assets with John Ruskey, Founder of Quapaw Canoe Company (based in Clarkdsale, Mississippi, but with an outpost in Helena) and river guide extraordinaire. We toured the levee, St. Francis National Forest at the confluence of the St. Francis River and the Mississippi River, got a view of the Mississippi River from multiple vantage points, and a look at Buck Island, one of the big islands of the Lower Mississippi. I also learned about oxbow lakes, which were once parts of the Mississippi River, until the river shifted and left these without a flow. John and the Quapaw Canoe Company provide outfitting and guiding for paddling trips on the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
Downtown Helena has wonderful possibilities, but suffers from the same issues many rural areas are facing of vacant storefronts and buildings, as well as some degraded infrastructure. It is home to the Delta Cultural Center, which features exhibits about the blues and more. I’m hoping through my work in Helena to support them in putting together a tourism development plan and engaging with some new and unusual partners, building demand for all that Helena and the larger region has to offer. Part of this work will be connecting Helena to the larger region in terms of tourism demand.