People gathering in the hotel lobby during the opening of Travelers Hotel two weeks ago Credit: Christopher Campos

CLARKSDALE – Downtown Clarksdale’s newest attraction has opened its doors to its one of a kind lodging option.

The Travelers Hotel, a $2.4 million 20-room artist run cooperative hotel opened recently after a year of construction and about three years of planning.

It’s “chic, unpretentious, and authentic,” said Ann Williams, part owner of the hotel and executive director for Coahoma Collective, the nonprofit organization geared towards arts and community development that oversees the Travelers Hotel and the Collective Seed and Supply Co., a general store located on Delta Avenue.

The hoteliers conceived the hotel as a place for artists – local and afar – to  display their work, acquire ownership in the nonprofit and create a potential “community hub” that would be accessible to any and everyone who enter through the doors.

“Those people will walk the streets of downtown and visit other businesses. It’s a great economic engine that we’ve been needing all the time,” said Ken Murphy, Ward 2 commissioner, adding that the hotel has the potential to benefit all businesses located in the area.

Charles Coleman, co-op member/artist and community engagement director of Coahoma Collective, envisions the space as a place to host art shows and exhibits, community gatherings and entertainment nights.

“Most of our area and lobby is used – and will be used – for community events so it’s another way for guests to also experience the true Clarksdale culture, vibes, and seeing what’s going on, talking with people and hanging out at the bar.”

In addition to Coleman, there are three other co-op members and two employees for the cooperative that owns the general store and manages the hotel. The goal is to have six or seven co-op members.

The members work about 24 hours a week, or two to three days a week between the two locations. Artists receive a stipend and free room and board, living above the general store.

The hours are flexible so artists can work on their creative pursuits. For instance, co-op member Deandre Metcalf, owns and operates Third Street Bistro, a new restaurant located next door to the hotel.

For traveling artists coming into town, who don’t necessarily have the funds and need a place to stay, the owners are thinking through a plan to allow them to stay at the hotel in exchange for art.

“They can use their medium as their currency,” said Chuck Rutledge, Clarksdale native, owner of hotel and economic developer.

The hotel is appealing to artists, but its the unique feel that reels the people in.

From the hand built furniture (headboards, desks, vanities, e.g.) to full restrooms in the bedrooms, it’s a modern day version of the former Travelers Inn, said Rutledge.

In the 1920s, the building that now houses the hotel, was formerly known was the Websters building. There were 13 rooms upstairs with a lavatory at the end of the hall built for the railroad workers during the time.

The bottom floor was a printing company and retail store. The interior of the present-day Travelers merely mirrors what you could expect in 1920s.

“We have an obligation and a desire to do this renovation in a way that was true to this building’s origin,” said Williams.

“I think when you walk into those upstairs rooms in particular, you know that you’re in a clean, cool nice place, but very much you’re surrounded by a historical building that those walls probably have a lot of stories to tell.”

The ADA wheelchair accessible guestrooms, community lobby, open bar and historic feel add to that uniqueness, said Kinchen “Bubba” O’Keefe, new director of Coahoma County Tourism Commission and also a former part-hotel owner.

“People that come (to Travelers), they experience somewhat of an old hotel that was there in the 1920s. They get all the modern amenities of WiFi, new bathrooms, heating and air, in-room bathroom and showers … and so that’s one thing that our travelers in Clarksdale are looking for a good experience and something unique,” said O’Keefe.  “It does raise the bar another notch.”

For hotel owners, the opportunity to produce more entrepreneurs and allow them to acquire ownership of the hotel is a vital piece to sustainability of the project.

“Ultimately, we would like to move on. … We’re the experienced people and so we were kind of the sponsors of this whole thing and we’d like to move out as people step up and take ownership,” said Rutledge. “We’d like to make that capacity available for someone else.”

Applying for historic tax credits and receiving donations and grants helped the team bring in a little under $2.4 million, largely in part to a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. (The Walton Family Foundation is one of Mississippi Today’s funders).

Ken Murphy, Ward 2 commissioner, shares as smile while guest bartending at the Travelers Hotel. Credit: Robin Colonas

The town’s leaders see the vision for what this could be for the future of the downtown area.

Murphy, Ward 2 commissioner, has seen the project “happen from the dirt up.”

Murphy said he’s been there every step of the way to help wherever he is needed. Even as a guest bartender during the soft opening on February 14.

“I’ve been so engaged because of the benefit it brings, and breeds even more life into what we’ve got going on,” said Murphy. “Any time they need me, I’ll be happy to be their guest bartender.”

Other city leaders agreed that this as an opportunity to continue to make the downtown area thrive economically.

“We know its a boutique-ish style hotel so we’ll be able to see taxpayer dollars boost the economy,” said Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy.

“It’s just a perfect amenity that couples all of downtown activities from blues and tourism, from the (upcoming) Wingstop and visitor center and with having the Third Street Bistro, all of those are wonderful add-ons to downtown … it’s a formula of how downtown is coming together. It’s really working for 2019.”

Jon Levingston, executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, added: “They have contributed to the redevelopment and resurgence of downtown. The hotel possesses a truly cool and hip vibe, creatively and comfortably decorated. I welcome them as a great addition to our community and appreciate how much they will contribute to our local economy.”

Now, the inventory of rooms are there – seven downstairs and 13 upstairs – it’s time to put “heads in beds,” said Williams.

“I think we have a really good concept here, but its all for nothing if we aren’t bringing in revenue,” said Williams. “The way that Clarksdale is going to continue to thrive is if  our dollars continue to circulate in Clarksdale in supporting your local businesses, your local hotel, and anything you can do.”

The revenue from the hotel helps sustain the arts-driven programming through the nonprofit, Coahoma Collective.

Rutledge adds: “The money here stays here. It doesn’t go to Hilton headquarters. It’s all local stuff.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.