"As Viking started to grow, we rented office space in the old Opera House on Front Street overlooking the Yazoo River. That's 'Opry' as in southern, not big ladies singing in Italian. The building owner then invested in Viking and we took over the whole building. Then in 1992, Stephens Inc. in Little Rock, Arkansas, bought into the company and suddenly, I could think beyond stoves--I was thinking, 'Let's build a company.' By then, the cotton business had changed--computers replaced people and many downtown buildings had fallen into disrepair. Since we needed the space, I started buying and renovating properties--we own 12 in the Front Street area alone. The old Ford dealership is our training center. I get a kick out of that every time I walk through--my parents bought me a 1966 Mustang from the show room where our display kitchen is.
"At first, we needed real estate for our own expansion needs, but then the Alluvian changed the way I saw Viking's expansion. At the time, there wasn't a decent hotel in Greenwood. Our salesmen came from all over to Greenwood to learn about our high-end products, and we'd put them in flophouses out on Highway 82 because that was all there was. The Alluvian doesn't make money, but the PR impact is huge. Once that got under way, it hit me: We need to renovate buildings, not just for our company but also for our town.
"Now Viking has a real estate section--we buy and renovate old buildings, then rent them out to tenants. Our HR office was formerly the Greenwood Cotton Exchange, where farmers would come from all over the Delta to meet with brokers. It was one big room with a blackboard where commodities prices would be handwritten in chalk. That place would get so packed with people it vibrated. Further down the block we had the best pool hall in the South, but it burned down. Now it's a parking lot. Then there was this great old drugstore with a soda fountain across the street. It's now a karate place. It breaks my heart.
"People have their own ideas as to what to do with old buildings. Staplcotn's Garrard Building was Greenwood's first piece of modern architecture--black marble and aluminum built in the '50s. It looked like something from gaddarn Manhattan. It was a treasure. Lo and behold, they tore it down and built a brick façade to match the rest of downtown. We were restoring brick façades, and they destroyed a great piece of architecture to match something from 100 years ago. That's not the way it's supposed to work. I hate to be critical, but it makes me sick every time I walk by it.
"We recently purchased the old Fountain's Department Store, which was the South's Bloomingdale's. Every Christmas the third floor was transformed into a fantasyland with fake snow and train sets. It was a big deal. A bookstore is going on the ground floor, run by a great couple from Oxford, and apartments will go upstairs. My aim is to bring life back downtown 24-7.
"What really tickles me is that businesses that left in the '70s and '80s are returning. Martha Foose was my very first recruit. She's from the Delta, did her culinary training in Paris, and now runs Viking's cooking school as well as Mockingbird Bakery. Both businesses are in a building I named after my mother, Lorraine. It was a surprise. In July 2005, I took her up on the Alluvian terrace where you could see the sign, and said, 'Mama, look'. That just thrilled her. Now she calls that her building. It thrills me too--that's the same block where she used to park the car and visit with people when I was a young boy."
Liz Welch is a frequent contributor to the magazine.