Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Carl Effect

Fred Carl gave his struggling town a great restaurant, a great book store, an elite hotel and a nationally-known kitchen appliance factory that employed thousands. But when he sold the factory, Greenwood cringed.

Greenwood’s downtown is a testament to just how much one well-heeled investor can accomplish.

Roughly at its middle sits the Viking Cooking School, where passers-by can watch through a picture window as aspiring gourmets try to reproduce what the experts have taught them. Farther up the street, surrounded by posh antique shops and boutiques, is the popular Turnrow Book Company, whose upstairs cafe became the hot spot for celebrity sightings in 2010 during the filming of “The Help.”

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Giardina’s. Photo by Katie Williamson

Right next door is the luxurious Alluvian Hotel, easily one of Mississippi’s top hotels, and its popular Giardina’s restaurant with its curtained dining booths. Back across the street, aboce the cooking school, is the Alluvian Spa. At the nearby Mississippi Gift Shop, locals and tourists shop for all sorts of Magnolia State souvenirs, gifts, pies and cakes and get to enjoy the work of local artists.

A short distance away, on Main Street, is Taylor Bowen Ricketts’ imaginative, art-laden Delta Bistro, just around the corner from the Front Street corporate offices of the Viking Corporation, the town’s second largest employer.

The Midas Touch

And on almost all of it are the fingerprints of Fred Carl, who looked at a down on its heels business district and saw possibility.

When many retailers were giving up on downtown, Carl was investing. With his Midas touch, he bought a few properties and his corporation, Viking Range, bought more. They bought out tenants who were ready to sell or retire. They started a few restaurants and shops, which encourages other business people to start up their own businesses, renting refurbished space from Viking.

It was all made possible by the increased traffic created 10 years ago by the Alluvian, the center of the wheel from which most f the other retail development sprang. The hotel’s success was all the more impressive because it came at a time when most people would have laughed at the prospect of building a successful luxury hotel in the poverty-stricken Delta.

Before that, when his wife wanted a bigger, better oven, Carl decided to create one. Soon, he had hatched Viking, the local industry that makes high-end commercial ranges designed for home use. It became the town’s biggest employer and, along with Carl himself, a catalyst for downtown redevelopment.

A Shaken Confidence

As other Delta downtowns suffered, Greenwood’s was slowly making progress. Then, on Jan. 31, 2013, a shudder went through the city.

Viking laid off about 200 employees, roughly 20 percent of the company Carl had just sold to Illinois-based Middleby. Half o the job cuts were implemented at its Greenwood operations. In the wake of that decision, Carl retired as CEO.

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Turnrow Bookstore. Photo by Lauren McMillin

Overnight, the confidence of many in this old cotton town was shaken.

“I think we fell into the false security of Viking staying the same and never changing,” said Beth Stevens, executive director at the Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce. “We just never really thought that it could happen. We just got comfortable with Viking being the pillar of this community.”

If Viking’s new owners could do this, people feared, might they not eventually pull out altogether, sending Greenwood into the kind of downward spiral seen by so many other Delta towns as people and industry departed.

“If they were gone, it would probably be pretty detrimental,” said Jamie Kornegay, who owns Turnrow alongside Carl.

But a few months later, Greenwood’s palpable fear has turned into optimism, at least publicly. Carl made it known that he still believes Greenwood has “a bright future” and to help it along, he plans to open two new restaurants – a revival of the Serio’s Italian restaurant that used to be here and a gastropub that Ricketts will help create near the Alluvian. On top of that, Viking donated the old Elks Lodge to the Carl Foundation, which will renovate it into a spiffy meeting place for public and private events.

Betting on Carl

And just like that, once again, Greenwood is betting on Fred Carl.

“We have a real solid base to work from,” Carl said. “We have a great deal of momentum, pride and excitement, and I think that will sustain the continued vitality in Greenwood.”

He said eh would remain “committed to the further development of Greenwood through the Carl Foundation.”

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Photo by Katie Williamson

To fully understand what that means to people here, “all you need to do is drive down Howard Street,” said Paige Hunt, executive director of the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau. There, shoppers are filling the stores, gathering in restaurants and wandering into the Alluvian to admire the art on the walls.

But it’s not just Howard Street. Over on Main, a few paces from the Yazoo River, Delta Bistro provides just one example of the creative ingenuity Carl has spawned.

Besides the imaginative dishes – fried alligator and barbecue elk brisquet – diners are treated to walls covered with paintings by Ricketts and other local artists. To get to the bathrooms, you walk through a heavy curtain of silver beads. And outside in the alley, Ricketts grows pots full of herbs and fresh produce, which she tries to incorporate in the menu.

Lighting the Fuse

Carl’s bold decision to invest in a slumping downtown became contagious.

“He purchased a lot of property and renovated a lot of property, which enticed businesses to want to be in downtown Greenwood,” said Hunt. “I think at the end of the day, it’s his love for this community. He saw the need to invest in it, and he did. I think that a vibrant downtown leads to a vibrant town.”

Carl, Ricketts said, wants to “not just preserve the Delta but he wants to improve it.

The Alluvian Hotel. Photo by Katie Williamson
The Alluvian Hotel. Photo by Katie Williamson

“There are no Mississippi towns of this size that have the class and impeccable taste of this town and what he has singled handedly done for the area,” she said.

“What was nice about it was that it bled over into the town. There was a real pride int hat local food culture and traditions,” Kornegay said. “Hopefully what he did was light the fuse on that, or maybe a more appropriate metaphor for that would be sow the seeds for that, and that it would grow up organically now by other people in the community and other interests will continue it without the support of the corporation.”

Tim Kalich, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth has witnessed The Carl Effect from its very beginning.

“I’ve been here 31 years in April, and Viking celebrated its twenty-fifth year of production last year, so I’ve been here the entire time,” Kalich said, recalling its growth from the early stages “when it had a few employees and its first customers to where at one point it had about 1,200 employees here.”

As Kalich sees it, Viking did more than just offer people jobs, making it now the city’s second biggest employer, trailing only the hospital.

“It was our largest employer until the recession hit,” he said. “A lot of people depend directly on viking for their livelihood, as well as people who indirectly benefit from that.

“The second thing is that if you were to compare Greenwood’s downtown area, in particular, to what it looked like before Viking Range started, it’s been a dramatic improvement,” Kalich said. “Viking has been the catalyst for the rebirth and renovation of our downtown. It’s done much for it itself, although other companies have also done similar things, either taking storefronts that had been abandoned or underutilized and completely restoring them, or giving their own businesses a facelift.”

Dealing with it

Once Carl sold Viking and the layoffs were announced, the vibrancy seemed to dull for a moment. While the situation initially appeared bleak, especially for those laid off, the overall mood around the town has now turned hopefully.

“I think we’re just kind of taking it day by day,” said Hunt. “Once the shock wore off, that was sort of a ‘Wow,’ but now it’s back to business as usual.”

Greenwood isn’t the only Delta town that has dealt with such concerns, something its citizens understand far too well.

“In a lot of ways, people were relieved (Viking) didn’t get shot down,” Kornegay said. “They’re sucking it up now and say ‘We can do this,” and they’re moving ahead. This i just the reality. The whole country is seeing this. It’s not just us, and people realize that.”

Stevens agrees.

“Every company that goes through change goes through this, and Viking is no exception,” she said. “This could be any company in Anytown, USA. I think it’s going to be critical for the ultimate success fo the company. I think that it probably was a necessary streamlining of Viking in order to poise them to do bigger and better things than what they’ve done.”

As it tries to build up its blues tourism and lure more people downtown, the last thing Greenwood wants is for visitors to think that the situation will only get worse.

Turnrow's Jamie Kornegay. Photo by Lauren McMillin
Turnrow’s Jamie Kornegay. Photo by Lauren McMillin

“There are rumors but this is not a doom-and-gloom situation, this is business,” Hunt said. “(Viking’s) still a viable entity, and things are still going on in Greenwood. We’re not wallowing. We’re trying to work and let people know that Greenwood’s still open for business.”

Planning to Stay

For its part, Viking has said that it plans to stay in Greenwood, that it doesn’t plan any more layoffs, that it plans to keep the Alluvian operating, and that it plans to improve and introduce new Viking products. Those statements have helped reassure the populace, but that nagging fear of a sudden exit remains.

Regardless of what happens, it has now become clear that the Carl influence on the city will remain. That’s enough to cause most folks in Greenwood to take hope.

Confident Viking is here for the long haul, Stevens dares to hope that expansion is in the future.

“I think that there is some opportunity there,” she said. “I think that they have some products that could definitely find their way to the top of the market. They’re going to take the prodcuts that they make andmake them even better… I think we’re going to see Viking do some exciting things.”

As Kornegay puts it, “It is kind of the end of an era. Viking is such a personal part of the community, and it may still be, who knows.”

Written by Lauren McMillin, Deeper South Magazine, The Land of Plenty