The colony-turned-city is a dilapidated shadow of the vibrant farming community it once represented. Back then it was buttressed by the bounty of cotton fields and a population that topped out at about 3,000. The area has been in decline since the end of World War II, a process that accelerated in the 1960s and '70s as locals struggled to survive on the flood-prone land, says Dyess Mayor Larry Sim.
These days, the cotton is long gone. There are fewer than 500 inhabitants, and the town is located in a region that statistics indicate is one of the most economically deprived in the nation: In Mississippi County, 25.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line, compared with 13.8 percent nationally, according to US Census Bureau data.
Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites, the office at Arkansas State University in nearby Jonesboro that leads the project, hailed the restoration as a potential boon for the local economy. The project also includes the transformation of the old administration building into a museum and new home for city hall.
“It is projected this is going to have a major impact on the Arkansas Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country,” she explains. "We are focusing on the heritage of the town – not just Johnny Cash but historic Dyess itself. We project about 30,000 to 50,000 visitors a year. We are looking [at creating] 100 new jobs and about $10 million in [annual] revenue for this area.”