Thursday, June 26, 2014

Destination - Batesville

We decided to go for a drive last Friday. Ended up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, after a one night layover at Tunica. We thought we might motor on down to Biloxi, but reality kept hinting that we’re not up those long drives like we used to be. Things on our bodies were hurting and making noises. So, after another losing casino night in Vicksburg, we decided to just head back up to Batesville (Arkansas – not that other one down there).

During the obligatory drive down Main Street, upon our arrival, we noticed the changes that have been mentioned on social media. Sort of an obstacle course. At first we weren’t too crazy about the thing, but then, thinking about it, and having the concept explained by Chief Gleghorn, it did all seem to make sense. Count me ‘n momma as supporters of the street changes (for whatever that’s worth), and anything else that can be done that might bring downtown Batesville back to life. I just hope it’s not too late.

Before leaving, Tuesday, we did have the pleasure of having lunch at “Big’s,” on Main Street. Great food, reasonable prices, and what may be the most friendly and conscientious staff of anyplace I have eaten in a long time. Even the cook came out to ask us if everything was to our satisfaction – and, of course, it was. This, I thought, is exactly the kind of place that could help bring downtown Batesville back from the abyss. When added to the likes of the Landers Theater renovation, Elizabeth’s, and the Simply Southern Playhouse (based on reports from friends, as I still haven’t had the opportunity to get there during our all-too-short visits) it’s a very good start. But the lack of growth problem with a town like Batesville can’t be solved by simply making it a cool place for the people who live there. Growth depends on money coming in from outside the community, itself. Commerce. Tourism. Either one can attract the other.

Batesville is certainly one of the most beautiful towns in Arkansas. I fell in love with the place the first time my dad drug us, kicking and screaming, there with him for work, around 1965. I think we stayed there two weeks, in the Powell Motel, and I didn’t want to leave when he was done. Even being a young kid, with friends in school, I was thrilled when he told us a couple of years later we were moving there. But even scenic beauty, it seems, isn’t enough to keep a city alive in this tough economy. Batesville isn’t on the way to anywhere. It’s not like people are going to stop off for a day or two during their vacations and spend money in hotels and restaurants and shops. It has to become a destination.

The new sports complex could surely help – hosting tournaments, etc. – but, again, not enough. Main Street needs to be totally renovated, and I do believe that has begun. But, allow me to offer up some suggestions regarding what I think could be major “selling points” that most other cities don’t have to start with.

Number One is, of course, the White River. The park there is great, and getting better. Josie’s was one of the best things to come along in decades. Why can’t other businesses build along the river? Think Little Rock’s “River Walk.” San Antonio. People dig water. If you build it, they will come.

Speaking of water, you may think Number Two (especially if you’re a resident) is a little crazy – but what about the bayou? There it sits, right behind Main Street, surrounded by thick woods and decaying buildings, breeding mosquitos. Bear with me.
WHAT IF the bayou was cleaned up? By that, I mean taking out all that brush and making a nice park all along both sides behind lower Main Street. Line each side with blocks, making it look more like a canal. Put some fountains out there in the water, ala Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Then, those old buildings across the tracks could add back patios and decks overlooking this beautiful park, and suddenly, they are desirable real estate again. Further, this could spark a rebirth in West Side – where a rebirth is desperately needed.

Third – and I’ll shut up after this one – this “dry county” thing has got to come to an end. I know many, including some of my own family, will disagree. The tax from alcohol sales, they’ll say, won’t be enough to make any difference. That is probably true, but it misses the point. You could tax the population of Batesville at 100 percent and never obtain the money needed to bring the city back to the status it deserves. It’s the money and taxes that could come in from other places that matters; the jobs created by new people, with new money, putting new businesses in this tourist attraction. Sure, it would probably hinder the meth business around town, but somebody has to suffer for the greater good.

Forget the Newport comparison. That’s just lame. Newport has nowhere near the scenic beauty of Batesville. It’s just a bad argument. Apples and turnips. Think about the places you take your families on vacations and getaways: Branson, Eureka Springs, Orlando, Florida. Bars, clubs, liquor stores everywhere. If you don’t drink, you don’t go in those places. But it is those places that help make possible the places you do go. There may be some, but I can’t think of a single tourist destination that is “dry.”

Once the tourist industry is healthy, other business will follow: services businesses to keep the hotels and restaurants running, and so on. More people. More jobs. A larger tax base.

Now, you’re going to ask “Where does the city get the money to do all this?”

I dunno. I’m just an idea man. A foundation, perhaps? Ask the Waltons?

But, thinking back on it, I’d say reverse the order of the three things I listed. Start with getting rid of the alcohol prohibition; then clean up the bayou and see what blooms.

©2014 Rick Baber