Home » MBJ FEATURE » Clarksdale historic restorations providing room to create
The nearly completed restoration of Clarksdale’s Travelers Hotel leaves the exterior of the building largely unchanged.

Clarksdale historic restorations providing room to create

By TED CARTER

A $2.3 million transformation of a circa 1923 hotel in Clarksdale that once served as lodging for railroad conductors and engineers is a key cog in a plan to draw artists and other creative people downtown.

Restoration of the historic Travelers Hotel on Third Street and transformation of the old Woolworth’s on Yazoo Avenue into residential lofts reflect several priorities for both Mississippi and the Delta town known as a worldwide draw for people seeking a blues heritage experience.

The redevelopments of the historically significant buildings mark a success for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s allocation of historic tax credits. They give a boost to believers in the idea that making new uses of things old can be an economic driver for a downtown. And lastly, the redevelopments give Clarksdale an opportunity to liven up the Central Business District by attracting artists, entrepreneurs and other creative types, says Bubba O’Keefe, a restoration developer who has worked with the non-profit Coahoma Collective in converting the two-story Travelers into a hotel.

“Creative people are flooding into Clarksdale,” O’Keefe said. “They are the ones more likely to plug into the social things. These things help change a community.”

In addition to the Travelers and the transformation of the Woolworth’s into the Lofts at the Five and Dime, the Coahoma Collective is behind creation of the Sunflower Lofts on Sunflower Avenue and Yazoo Pass Restaurant on Yazoo Avenue.

Collective executive director Ann Williams described the effort in a written comment: “Coahoma Collective’s mission is to catalyze arts-driven, community-inclusive revitalization in downtown Clarksdale. Travelers Hotel will create jobs and expand existing tourism while providing a new venue for arts and culture programs in a comfortable, authentic space where all are welcome.”

Chuck Rutledge, a New Orleans restoration developer, has teamed with O’Keefe and the Collective on the historic preservation projects. “In terms of tourism, we’ll obviously add an alternative place to stay in downtown Clarksdale,” he said of the 95-year-old Travelers which became home to a now-departed printing shop decades after its life as a hotel ended.

“It is also in our interest to market to people interested in the blues but also to people who come to Clarksdale for other reasons.”

Programs for the arts will be a draw and partnerships with musicians and blues venues are in the mix as well, Rutledge said.

State tax credits covered $480,000 of the $2.3 million Travelers restoration. Federal tax credits accounted for another $380,000 of the costs, according to Rutledge.

But even those cost coverages would come up short had the Coahoma Collective not landed a sizable Walton Family Foundation grant, he said.

Indeed, getting the Travelers Hotel to this point took some creativity and resourcefulness, said O’Keefe. “We had to think out of the box as far as cooperatives, grants and anything else to make these tax credits work,” he said.

Insufficient rents put buying a building like the Traveler Hotel out of reach for a non-profit, according to O’Keefe.

“We’re trying to grow this town,” added O’Keefe, a Clarksdale native.

“Doing something like this is unique,” he said, explaining that the restoration projects will give everyone from painters to entrepreneurs to software developers a place to live, work and have an ownership stake without any out-of-pocket expense. Ownership comes at the end of their up-to-one-year tenure as part of the Collective’s creative membership.

These seven or so creative people will stay in Coahoma Collective-provided apartments at the Five and Dime Lofts and work in studio space set aside for them there. To earn their keep, they’ll work one day a week at the Travelers and three days a week at a former farm feed and seed store on Delta Avenue the Collective has converted to a gift shop and other retail use.

Rutledge calls this “creative place-making to help create jobs downtown and expand tourism.”

It’d be great, he said, for Clarksdale to get a big manufacturing center. “But while we’re waiting on that, we will use creative thinking to enhance what is there.”

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