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REX NELSON: Manila moves forward

Manila is an anomaly in the Arkansas Delta, a region where most small towns have been losing population for decades.

It's in Mississippi County, which saw its population decline from 82,375 in the 1950 census to 46,480 in the 2010 census. While the county was losing 36,000 residents, Manila's population almost doubled from 1,729 in the 1950 census to 3,342 in the 2010 census. Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Donna Brewer Jackson notes that Manila "has not experienced the population decrease of its Mississippi County contemporaries, primarily because white flight from the nearby towns of Blytheville and Osceola has led people to relocate to Manila."

A recent visit to Manila convinced me that there's more to the town than white flight. With Jackson as my tour guide, it was evident that residents take pride in their community and are willing to invest in its future. A major point of pride is the 124,136-square-foot high school that opened in August. Designed by Little Rock-based Cromwell Architects-Engineers and built by Nabholz Construction of Conway, the school has an auditorium that will seat 750 people, modern computer labs and much more. Voters approved a millage increase in 2015 to help pay for the $20 million facility.

Another facility that's far fancier than one would expect in a town this size is the Manila Airport, where a group of private pilots formed the Manila Pilots Association. Those pilots decided that they wanted to focus on more than just the airport. They partnered with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service to form an organization called Moving Manila Forward. The Cooperative Extension Service has a community and economic development effort known as Breakthrough Solutions, and Moving Manila Forward affiliated with it.

"We've done a lot of hard work to pull the community together and push forward," says Andrew Fleeman, Moving Manila Forward's chairman. The effort began with a series of meetings to learn what Manila residents considered to be the priorities for the community. About 200 people attended those meetings. The leaders of Moving Manila Forward visited other progressive communities across the state and met with the leaders of state agencies that they thought might be helpful in their efforts. A mission statement was written, a preliminary blueprint for community development was drawn up, a board was established and what are known as action teams were formed in the areas of agriculture and food; economic development, education and infrastructure; downtown revitalization and retail; quality of life and place; and aviation.

The organization's objectives include promoting Manila's quality of life, revitalizing its downtown and pursuing partnerships that will lead to improved broadband services. Activities sponsored thus far by Moving Manila Forward include farmers markets, a special event for which the Manila Pilots Association flew in 200 pounds of fresh shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, monthly concerts at the city's museum, a community cleanup and what are known as fly-in movie nights at the airport. The Manila School District is even forming a Moving Manila Forward youth group.

Manila is in an area once known as the Great Swamp. Because of the swamps formed by the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12, the region was slow to settle.

"In 1900, 20 registered voters of what was then the little community of Cinda (named after Lucinda, the postmaster's sister) were selected to represent the town's bid for incorporation," Jackson writes. "They decided to incorporate on July 3, 1901, under the name Manila to honor Commodore George Dewey's accomplishments during the Spanish-American War. Dewey's decisive battle at Manila Bay was the first major engagement of the war between Spain and the United States and led to American control of the Philippines. ... By 1900, the extensive timber in the area was attracting the attention of the railroads. Railroad companies recognized that substantial profits could be made from shipments of timber from the area. The town grew rapidly when the Jonesboro, Lake City & Eastern extended its line to Manila on Dec. 2, 1900. The JLC&E operated four trains daily until 1938 when it was sold."

Manila's depot was built in 1910 and was used until 1977. It has been restored to its original condition and is now an excellent small-town museum. The first levee around Manila was constructed in 1920. Levees broke and the town flooded in 1927 and 1937. The current levees around Big Lake were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1938 and have been fortified through the decades.

The Manila area became known in the early 1900s as one of the best places for hunting and fishing in the South.

Jackson writes: "This early industry used the railroad to ship huge quantities of fur, fish and game to markets outside the state. The wild duck market on Big Lake began around 1890 and lasted until President Woodrow Wilson named it a federal game reserve in 1915, having been persuaded to do so by people such as plantation owner Robert E. Lee Wilson and others who had hunting clubs on Big Lake and worked to exclude independent market hunters from the area."

The duck hunting is still good here. Though it's not yet duck season, my overnight stay last month was at the Black Mallard Hunting Lodge, just across the road from the Herman Davis Memorial, Arkansas' smallest state park.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/10/2018

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