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Helena-West Helena

A Time-Tested Town That’s Still Open for Business

by Curtis Lanning

A shrinking population has led to some growing problems for Helena-West Helena, but the town is still open for business, officials say.

In 2000, Helena had a population of around 15,000, but that has since whittled down to about 10,800. Towns across the Mississippi Delta are experiencing the same issue as population shifts to Central and Northwest Arkansas.

But Chris Richey, executive director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce, is convinced Helena has the tools to weather this storm and eventually bounce back.

Richey said Helena faces the same challenges most shrinking towns in rural America do. In addition to the decreased population, the area suffers from aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced. And with a decline in population comes a decline in property and sales taxes that are normally used to maintain infrastructure.

But Richey said Helena is working hard to change all that. The executive director wants opportunities for kids growing up in Helena to stay, work and raise their own families.

Helena-West Helena used to be two separate towns, but they merged and now have a common direction as the community moves forward, Richey said.

Richey said Helena has the historic downtown district with lots of old and beautiful buildings, while West Helena is a little more retail oriented with stores and restaurants.

Downtown Helena | Photos courtesy of Main Street Helena.

One tool Richey said the community has at its disposal is Phillips Community College. The two-year university offers workforce training to equip residents with the skills they need to join local industries and business.

“It’s priceless,” he said. “It’s a tremendous asset for our community.”

Another great asset the town has is its transportation availabilities. With Helena sitting right on the Mississippi River, that provides a massive shipping opportunity for goods, especially for those in the agricultural industry, which makes up most of Phillips County’s economy.

The Mississippi River helps Helena to get its products to the rest of the world.

In addition to river, the town also has rail availability. In 2015, Helena lost its rail service, and the port authority immediately launched into an effort to have it restored, Richey said. The service was restored that same year.

And now? Helena has more rail traffic than they’ve had in years, Richey said.

“It was a huge win, getting that reestablished,” he said.

River, rail, and workforce training at the local college make for some powerful tools, according to Richey.

“That puts us in a great spot to attract more industry to our community,” he said.

What Helena offers businesses seeking a new home is the opportunity to meet a need for more retail options, according to Richey.

Helena is full of good people ready to work with and do what they can to help and support businesses that come to town, Richey said.

“It always comes back to the people,” he said.

And while the town courts new businesses, Shane Williams, executive director of Main Street Helena, said the largest employers in the area are those in the agriculture industry, the Phillips County Hospital and the local school system.

Yes, the town does have its challenges, but the future looks good, according to Richey.

“We have assets most rural communities do not have,” he said.

And those assets provide opportunities most rural towns also lack.

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