Publication Note: This column was first published in the August 30, 2017 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format. It is the 19th installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.
This summer, our family had the opportunity to take roads less traveled and explore old places that are new to us. Natalie and I love to uncover jewels in the rural byways of our region. I am convinced that every place has a great story to tell. Our hometown of Lonoke is no exception! In reflecting on the memories of the recently concluded summer of 2017, I am reminded of the pleasantness of our overnight stay in Brookhaven, Mississippi.
Much like the town of Laurel, about which I wrote in a previous column, Brookhaven is a place preceded by its online reputation. I later learned that the conscientiously-curated views into the everyday life of the town featured via the community’s social media feeds and internet presence are the result of the hard work of a group of young leaders determined to celebrate the uniqueness of their community. Garrick Combs, Executive Director of the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce explains that the agency which was hired to create the community’s promotional effort “grew to represent the chamber, economic development district, and the city, making us as seamless as we could be from a branding and marketing standpoint.”
It is fitting, then, that I was introduced to Brookhaven through the community’s Instagram feed. Previously knowing nothing about the community (or its location), I was impressed with the way in which the architecture, activity, and art of the town is portrayed in the continuously updated posts from the Visit Brookhaven organization. As Combs noted, both the municipal website and Visit Brookhaven website are uniformly branded, creating a recognizable visual identity with an ease of navigation for prospective visitors, including our family. From the social media platforms, we found a simply-organized, user-friendly site that featured local food, shopping, and accommodations. In our quest to stay off the beaten path, our family was attracted to a listing for The Inn on Whitworth, a locally-owned boutique hotel in downtown Brookhaven. I had some questions about the room descriptions listed on the site and decided to call for assistance. This call was our first encounter with Sallie the innkeeper. She was helpful and gracious on the telephone when I explained that we were traveling with three boys under the age of 8 years old (yes, we are that family)! While we looked forward to the entire vacation trip, I was especially hopeful that the Inn on Whitworth would turn out to be as enjoyable as we expected.
Several weeks later, we pulled into Brookhaven on a Saturday evening. Historic Downtown Brookhaven is practically a postcard of a well-kept, unpretentious, Southern community. We entered town from the east on Monticello Avenue, and encountered rows of handsome low-rise brick commercial structures with overhanging balconies extending over the sidewalk porches. This form is an application of a recognizable regional vernacular, much like what would be seen further west on Highway 84 in Natchez, or further north in Oxford. Interestingly, Brookhaven’s downtown is organized very similarly to Lonoke, with two parallel streets located along either side the railroad right-of-way. While our rail service has long-since ceased in Lonoke, Brookhaven’s City of New Orleans Amtrak passenger line is still active, now departing from the renovated historic 1890 power plant, repurposed as a modern transportation facility adjacent to downtown. The former Illinois Central depot, constructed of brick masonry with a clay-tile roof anchors the heart of Downtown Brookhaven and now houses the local military museum, with a feel and physical presence similar to Lonoke’s historic Rock Island Depot which houses the Lonoke Area Chamber of Commerce and occupies the key nexus of Front and Center Streets. Brookhaven’s Cherokee Street* passes under a much-photographed iconic steel arch with permanent letters declaring Brookhaven “A Home Seeker’s Paradise,” and crosses Whitworth Avenue, a street along which local restaurants, banks, and clothing stores are lined, including sweet shop next door to our overnight accommodations. Another row of similarly-scaled brick structures is situated mirror-like across the tracks, lined by a manicured lawn, a blooming landscape, and accessible parking. Arriving at the Inn was as pleasant as we had hoped. Sallie greeted us personally, ensured our accommodations were suitable, and remained accessible for any needs we had. Sitting in the inviting lobby kitchen surrounded by modern local sculpture, paintings, and three-dimensional art, I had the opportunity to visit with her for a bit, as I was very interested in learning more of how a small community managed to retain and rehabilitate so much of its historic fabric right in the heart of town. Sallie credited a combination of local investors who were determined to bring the buildings back to life first, making them attractive to prospective businesses and tenants, along with the increasing desire for downtown loft living, and young leadership at the local Chamber of Commerce who employed creative methods of promoting the community to the region.
The fruits of this labor are easily noted as one walks down the sidewalks and lit alleyways. The compact nature of Brookhaven’s downtown is also analogous to the built fabric of Lonoke, and the way their community celebrates each corner, intersection, and wall is very inspiring for what Lonoke may seek to do in the future, as we focus on beautifying our town. Of particular note is the large-scale mural, sponsored by a local bank, that serves as a photographable backdrop for visitors and residents who are proud of their place. That Saturday night, we walked to a local Greek-inspired pizza restaurant from our hotel, and enjoyed the friendly server’s hospitality and excellent recommendations. With leftovers in tow, we returned to our room, relaxed and ready for a good night’s sleep. Even with multiple trains bypassing our window through the night, I still say that Brookhaven was my best night’s sleep of the summer.
With its location on Interstate 55, just an hour south of Jackson, Brookhaven’s convenient proximity to the state capital reminds me of Lonoke’s geographic position. Interestingly, on a separate trip later in the summer, this time returning from a professional development conference in New Orleans, our family passed through Brookhaven again. This time we were able to enjoy lunch at the downtown location of one of our favorite Mississippi restaurants, Georgia Blue, and walked across the street to their recently-opened off-site bakery, which was closed the evening of our visit earlier in the summer.
Inspired by my visit with Sallie, I recently had an opportunity to correspond with Garrick Combs and his team at the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce. Garrick shares that before downtown Brookhaven’s revival, the streets were “Less crowded during the day,” with fewer cars and less traffic. “At night it was dark and deserted,” he explains. “All the activity was on the main retail area called Brookway Blvd. Once the professionals left for the day it was empty.” Concurring with Sallie, he explains the turnaround, noting, “I think downtown’s growth began with the popularity of living downtown. The city allows for second floor residential in the downtown district. It keeps downtown alive after all the attorneys, CPAs, and bankers go home to the neighborhoods. When they leave, a different crowd comes home to downtown in the evening. That is one element that has allowed restaurants and shops to invest in downtown rather than out by the interstate.”
I’m inspired by Garrick Combs’ forward-thinking approach, his team’s development and use of a strong brand for the community, and the commonalities between our communities, in terms of potential and the ingredients to achieve progress. He notes, “Leadership matters…a lot! Having the courage to try new ideas, even though some of them will almost certainly fail, is critical to finding the strategy that works for you. Within our team at the chamber and tourism council, we assembled a diverse group that brings many different backgrounds and points of view.” Like Laurel, Brookhaven is a larger community than Lonoke, with a population a little over 12,000 people. However, there is no question that the town has similarly recognized its uniqueness and chosen to celebrate in an attractive way. Both are a model to be considered.
Social Entrepreneur Tim Lampkin writes, “There is so much power in ownership. This includes being owners of our culture, creativity, and even our community.” These words energize me, as I think of the work we get to do together here in Lonoke. I am grateful that Tim will be coming to Lonoke on September 7 to speak to our students and personally meet with our local leaders as part of the Virgil Turner Memorial Lecture Series sponsored by Carver Alumni Association. As Lonoke recognizes the character and potential that we share with other communities in region, we gain a body of knowledge and perspective that will allow us to face challenges and learn from one another.
Ryan Biles is a local architect married to Natalie, who has posted additional images from the family’s stop in Brookhaven on her Instagram feed @ShineInteriorDesign, also linked in the latest post at www.lookatlonoke.com .
*This version corrects a mistake in which “Cherokee Street” was misidentified in the newspaper editionl