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June 19, 2024

Delta Jewel Shines On

Optimism Abounds in the City of Cleveland

by Jack Criss

The Bolivar Bullet

The City of Cleveland continues to grow, develop, diversify and improve acting as a model town, not only for other Delta communities, but also for similar-sized municipalities across the state.

With a population right at 11,200 according to the 2020 United States Census, Cleveland boasts an impressive mix of industry along with locally-owned, specialty businesses and an active civic life. Anchored by such business and medical concerns as Baxter Healthcare, Bolivar Medical Center, Quality Steel, among others, and home to Delta State University, Cleveland has seen a steady rise in population and business permits over the past several years. The town’s recent designation by the state as a Certified Retirement Community will only add to the town’s growth, those surveyed agree.

Mayor Billy Nowell said the Cleveland economy continues to strengthen with growth in both sales tax and tourism tax.

 “I think we’re in as good a shape as we’ve ever been in here,” said Nowell. “We’ll have several million dollars available through the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) government program that we will use for further infrastructure improvements putting us in a first class position with our water and sewer systems. And, we’re averaging one to two ribbon cuttings for new businesses every couple of weeks or so, which shows the strength of the entrepreneurial drive here in Cleveland. I’ll say again that our economy is as strong as I’ve seen it and we are constantly having investors looking at the town for business opportunities.”

Brian Robinson, CEO of Robinson Electric — a longtime, family-owned Cleveland business — exudes the same optimism. “And, I have to give a ton of credit to our Board of Aldermen, city leaders and Bolivar County leaders for the work they’ve been doing for our city,” he said. “This entire city government, from top to bottom, has done excellent work for our community. Secondly, there has been a mass flight to Cleveland from surrounding Delta towns. Others in this region see and have noticed how well business, education and government leaders work together here and the difference is palpable. We’re incredibly fortunate.

“Our downtown area and local restaurants also are doing incredibly well and draw people from all over the Delta and the state,” said Robinson. “Drive through downtown any day of the week — not just on weekends — and it’s totally full. My wife, Heather, owns her own business, Heidi’s, downtown and she is also talking about the heavy foot traffic. All of those businesses on Cotton Row and downtown are doing very well.”

Robinson says businesses like his and others in Cleveland are also very civic minded and answer the call when the community needs their backing, support and sponsorship. 

“I’d say that most all of us here in Cleveland who own businesses step up to the plate with a civic group or, say, Delta State needs a hand,” he said. “We understand collectively how important it is to do help out as needed in order to keep this town as livable and great as it is.”

Charlie Heinsz, of Tom Smith Land and Homes, said the company’s Cleveland location — which opened in September of 2020 — is prospering and doing very well. 

“Not only are we doing well, but it appears the other local businesses are, also. We’ve got a strong educational system here and good city leadership combined with a strong sense of civic pride — it all adds up to make Cleveland the great place to live and work it is today.”

Heinsz noted that new housing developments and lots are selling out quickly and that demand for housing in Cleveland will keep going up as more and more people move into the town from around the Delta — and the nation. 

“I’ve noticed more people from out of state that have moved into town,” he said. “The ‘secret’ is getting out!”

Kevin Cox, longtime Delta radio executive based in Cleveland, said, “In my opinion, I think the key is that we’ve been blessed with outstanding city leadership that has done so much to foster a strong business environment. Located as we are in a farming, agricultural environment, I think you can say that the seeds have been planted over the years and now you’re witnessing the growth that is Cleveland today.”

Cox noted that Cleveland has held a strong education base (e.g., Delta State and the city’s school system), a strong agricultural base and a strong industrial base. “We’re not dependent on just one thing, or one industry or field,” he said. “Plus, we have a very strong creative economy here that has added to our tourism industry which is thriving now thanks to the Grammy Museum and others.”

Dr. Butch Caston, Interim President of Delta State University, has held many past positions at DSU but came out of retirement to take on his new role. 

“I would not have taken an interim position anywhere else,” he said. “What this university means to me personally and what it means to Cleveland, the Delta and the state of Mississippi is just too important and I’m honored to be where I am today. I could not have said ‘no’ to this opportunity and the support I have received so far, in a short time, has been overwhelming.”

Caston said Cleveland and Delta State University are, to coin a phrase, “joined at the hip. And, we here wouldn’t want anything less than that. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. Throughout our respective histories, there has been reciprocity that is unparalleled. I think of our current, outstanding mayor, Billy Nowell, who was a student/athlete of mine when I taught at Cleveland High School years ago. He’s just one example of the bond that exists here between the citizens — and former students of Delta State and our other schools — and this community.”

Even as an interim administrator, Caston said his position does not represent any type of holding pattern. 

“It’s full speed ahead for Delta State,” he said. “We will continue promoting this fine institution and expand its role and increase its possibilities for our students and the Cleveland community.”

And, although Covid was a devastating blow to Delta State and educational institutes at all levels across the nation,  Caston says the recovery was quick and apparent and that enrollment is currently up at DSU. 

“There are so many signs of encouragement all around us here on campus,” he said. “Every employee at this university has a role to play in increasing our enrollment and visibility and those roles have been taken on with enthusiasm by all of us. I also believe that, with Cleveland now a Certified Retirement Community, that alumni will be looking to return to this city and experience how much we’ve grown and all that we have to offer here.”

Delta State’s Athletic Director for the past three years, Mike Kinnison, is one of those alumni who came back to the school to take his current position. As Athletic Director, recruitment of athletes is a key component of that position and Kinnison says Cleveland gives his program a distinctive advantage.

“No, we don’t have the bright lights of an Atlanta or New Orleans,” he said. “But, I think the university town setting we’re in appeals to a great many student athletes because of the opportunities here. We have a certain character, an identity, that other towns don’t have.”

Kinnision joked that he might be somewhat prejudiced, but he believes the athletic department at DSU and its successes over the years has brought a lot of positive national attention to Cleveland. 

“We’re like the visible front porch of the university, or the great connector as I like to call it,” he said. “Our local events, game day functions and athletic competitions all enhance the lifestyle of people here in town and bring us together. Plus, our teams have garnered recognition from all over the Southeast and when we travel to other towns and communities to compete our fourteen teams represent this city very well.”

Robert Sanders, State Representative and a City Alderman for Ward 2, gives a status report on his town. 

“I feel great about this community,” said Sanders. “The city has achieved a lot of growth in recent years and certainly all indications point to that continuing. Our infrastructure upgrades are staying in time and up to date and our local businesses are reporting growth. Plus, so many folks who live in surrounding towns and counties come here to Cleveland to shop and eat — all of these factors add up to where we are now, which is in a strong — and enviable — place.”

Sanders said the city will continue to recruit new businesses from out of the area even while local entrepreneurs are springing up regularly and doing well. 

“I’m optimistic about everything here in Cleveland, really, because the indicators are all good,” he said. “There’s also a lot of pride in this community — people care and it shows. But it’s justified because there’s much to be proud of here.”

Will Bradham, owner of several businesses in Cleveland, says the economy in town is good even though inflation and fuel costs — as well as labor shortages — has probably held down possible greater growth. 

“I think we’ll weather the storm,” he said, sounding a note of cautious optimism. “Cleveland is a true jewel in the Delta and people are spending money here in our stores and shops. There’s a resiliency in this community, which I share, but I do think we’ll be seeing businesses everywhere tighten their belts. That doesn’t mean we’re going to fail, but I do think that spending will probably slow down unless and until gas prices go down and we get some kind of relief from inflation.”

One of Cleveland’s most popular downtown attractions, the Martin and Sue King Railroad Heritage Museum, has had a very successful past year. That’s according to the Museum’s director, Anna Sledge. 

“It’s been great, actually,” said Sledge. “There’s no charge to enter, of course, so people don’t worry about spending extra funds. Of course, we do have a gift shop on site and offer a variety of activities throughout the years, so our out of town visitors especially love the shop for mementos and locals love the activities we host.”

Sledge said the Museum primarily attracts Delta visitors but that she’s had people visit from as far away as the Netherlands. “You never can tell who’ll come in,” she laughed. “While we do draw mainly from the nearby region it never surprises me when someone from around the country, or the world, will drop by.”

Chris Collins, President of Roy Collins Construction in Cleveland, has overseen his business develop a great deal of residential properties and areas in town as well as continued overall growth of the company.

“I’m optimistic about Cleveland and think we have so much to offer here,” said Collins. “Our business community is diversified enough so that if one industry or business is down, others will go up keeping our economic equilibrium strong. Plus, we saw the demand for new housing here and got into that field here at Roy Collins. Plus, the City is continuingly upgrading infrastructure and facilities and the addition to the nursing school at Delta State is ongoing — there’s a flurry of activity here.”

Collins is aware that economic problems certainly do exist, as national trends affect Cleveland just like any other town, but that his company is doing well and that he thinks that indicators are in place showing possible relief in late summer or early fall for the nation as a whole.

“Cleveland has become a central hub for the entire Delta now,” said Collins. “People are coming here to shop and eat. Plus, I also know that the City and our Chamber are focused on further economic development for Cleveland and for Bolivar County — because of those efforts, within the next year to eighteen months, I believe there’s a strong possibility that we’ll have new medium-sized manufacturing operations locating in our area.”