Downtown redevelopment in historic Delta city grows

by

Published: September 4,2006

CLARKSDALE — There’s a renaissance well underway in downtown Clarksdale that will have quite an effect on the future of the city.

This interest in many of the downtown’s long vacant historic properties has been spurred on by the synergy of the city’s blues heritage. And the keen interest of blues aficionados from around the world has also helped since most of these people are outsiders who have come to the city for blues events, and ended up staying and making an investment in the community.

Developers or interested investors from places like New York, California, Washington, D.C., and even Amsterdam have already taken title to a number of downtown properties, started rehabilitating and refurbishing the structures and, in some cases, have opened new, small businesses with an eye toward an expected downtown renewal.

“It’s amazing what has been going on here lately,” said Joe Middleton, owner of Middleton Realty & Appraisal Inc. of Clarksdale. “Many of our downtown buildings have been vacant and just left in disrepair, but now we’re seeing a renewed interest in downtown properties with an eye toward renovating them and making them viable commercial properties again.”

And Middleton should know since he has been the real estate broker on numerous downtown properties sold over the past year or so.

Most notably has been the recent acquisition of at least 17 downtown properties by Santa Rosa, Calif. developer and entrepreneur Charles Evans.

An interest in the blues and the legacy Clarksdale has played in promoting, sustaining and letting the world know that it is the “Crossroads of the Blues” piqued Evans’ interest in the city.

“It’s a wonderful place to be,” said Evans, who has also bought a building with international blues musician Charlie Musselwhite, which will be renovated into apartments for the two families for when they come to Clarksdale to visit.

“I just think it’s a great investment and a great place to be. I have found Clarksdale to be charming and full of history. And the downtown area has so much potential. I want to be a part of bringing that area back to life.”

At the forefront

Another mover and shaker when it comes to helping bring about a downtown renaissance is Clarksdale attorney William O. Luckett.

Many may know the long-time Clarksdale resident for his legal skills, but over the past few years, he has been in the forefront of saving some of Clarksdale’s endangered structures.

It wouldn’t be unusual to see Luckett in jeans and a T-shirt sporting a tool belt focused on some renovation project such as the now famous Madidi Restaurant in downtown Clarksdale.

Luckett and movie actor Morgan Freeman have partnered to not only save the vacant and derelict building at the corner of Delta Avenue and Second Street, but also to bring fine dining downtown after hours.

“I love doing this,” said Luckett. “It’s a great feeling when we can take a building that is in such disrepair and has historic value and bring it back to life. I love it.”

Besides the Madidi Restaurant, Luckett has also saved other structures such as the former Hotel Clarksdale and Bank of Lyon buildings. Now through Luckett’s visionary eye, those structures are now home to residents who enjoy apartment living in a downtown setting.

Now the downtown landscape shines with the renovated Hotel Clarksdale Apartments and the Bank of Lyons Apartments.

“I like to keep the names of the buildings, too. I think it’s important to keep that bridge to the past,” said Luckett.
When the Delta Blues Museum moved from its long-time home in the city library building to the former railroad station property, things really started changing downtown. The train station was renovated along with some other properties in the area now known as Blues Alley.

Then came the saving of the building, which now houses the Ground Zero Blues Club, also known in the vernacular as a “juke joint,” and also a Luckett renovation project.

“We turned that building around and gave it the historic look of a juke joint with apartments on the second floor. It’s become such a hit next to the Delta Blues Museum,” Luckett said.

Along with those two blues projects, the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art building in the same area has also added to the blues culture.

And just across the alley on Sunflower Avenue is the bright blue landmark building called Delta Hardware, which Evans and Musselwhite have bought together. The building now graces the cover of Musselwhite’s latest album also titled “Delta Hardware.”

“That’s really going to help us out here to see that building on an album cover for someone like Charlie Musselwhite. It’s really great,” said Middleton.

Anticipating new projects

Now, through the purchase by Evans of nearly one whole block of commercial properties on Sunflower Avenue, more synergy is expected in the Blues Alley area.

“Why Clarksdale?” asked Evans. “It really came to my attention when Charlie Musselwhite acquired a second home in Clarksdale. He just loved the place and shared with me about what was going on there. I really had never heard about Clarksdale until then. I became intrigued with the place.”

One thing led to another and Evans and Musselwhite decided to become partners in several properties while Evans also decided to take on more downtown properties on his own.
One of Evans’ property acquisitions is what locals call the Sunflower Mall, which is a block crisscrossed with open pedestrian areas in a park-like setting behind buildings which face four streets including the famous Blues Alley area.

“I think that purchase is really going to be good. There are a lot of smaller commercial properties that will complement the area. There’s a lot of work to be done but the investment will be well worth it,” Evans said.

Raymond Huerta, owner of Huerta Construction Co. Inc. in Cleveland, has been busy repairing the roofs on many of properties that have been sold as of late.

“Many of those downtown buildings are in bad shape — especially the roofs. But I think it’s great that someone is coming in and fixing them up and saving the historic nature of those buildings. There’s a lot of history in Clarksdale that can be preserved through rehabilitating many of these historic places,” said Huerta.

Huerta also has a reputation and penchant for saving and renovating historic properties, which he has done in Cleveland. His latest project is the restoration of the long-closed Grover Hotel.

He is also aware of the restoration efforts of people like Luckett.

“It’s great that someone like that takes the time and resources to save some of the heritage of downtown Clarksdale,” Huerta said.

Evans and Middleton agree.

“I’m following in his (Luckett’s) footsteps,” said Evans. “As a blues aficionado, I want to do what I can to help preserve a rich blues history, which gives it a story other places don’t have. I’m quite interested in Clarksdale being a place for blues fans to come and visit and really putting Clarksdale on the map.”

“Much like Bill Luckett helping preserve the history of the city through his purchases and renovations of historic properties, I want to do my part to help out Clarksdale,” said Evans.

This is the kind of talk Middleton and many others in the downtown area like to hear.

“You can’t have a successful city if your downtown isn’t vibrant and thriving. We’ve been on the downslide for a number of years downtown. But with people like Bill Luckett and Charles Evans, and many coming here from places like New York, Washington, D.C., and California, to buy property and make an investment here, we’re really starting to see a change for the better.”

Evans recognizes that with the addition of the U.S. 61 bypass east of Clarksdale, “many businesses want to be out on the highway. And that’s OK. Many people don’t often think of downtown for doing business and shopping. But there’s a real charm here and other reasons to have a business downtown. Soon it’s going to be the place to be.”

“We’re always glad to see people like Mr. Evans come here, see what we have to offer and look beyond the buildings in disrepair. He sees what can be done. He sees the potential and that’s the kind of people we like to see come here. We certainly welcome him and anyone else who want to make a difference in Clarksdale,” said Luckett.

As for Middleton, his real estate signs can be seen on many of the downtown properties, but as of late, there are fewer and fewer of them hanging in empty store front windows.

“I like that for Clarksdale,” said Middleton.

Contact MBJ contributing writer David Lush at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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