- Associated Press - Saturday, September 27, 2014

GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) - With his roots deep in the Delta, it’s no surprise that Wesley Smith is a blues fanatic. Glancing around his large office at the Greenville-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau, whether the walls are painted or not is a moot point as blues posters and banners dating back to the ‘80s blanket the walls.

There’s a poster from the Robert Johnson Memorial Blues Festival in August 1992, another from the Bentonia Blues Festival in 1995, several from the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival, Blues on the Bay Festival, Blues Blast, Big Joe Turner’s Birthday Bash, Highway 61 Blues Festival, King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Sam Chatmon Blues Festival - just to name a few.

“You can say you don’t like the blues, but the blues did create rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “And, you can trace the blues, music, fashion and art back to the Mississippi Delta.”

A Greenwood native, Smith loves everything blues and wants to share with others that culture - and the experience that comes with it.

It’s no surprise, then, he found himself in the tourism business in the South, and more importantly, in the land of the blues.

Folks reference him when they talk about Bridging the Blues or the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival - or Greenville and Washington County, for that matter - but they often are unsure just what Smith does at the Convention & Visitors Bureau and how exactly he is involved with tourism.

Smith laughs at that, as he’s a man who never stops. He’s the director of the Greenville-Washington County CVB, vice president of the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association and chairman of the Bridging the Blues board.

“Every day, I’m talking to somebody - the media or tour operators - about Bridging the Blues or coordinating an event,” he said. “I go to trade shows, meet with operators. You’re doing things to try and sell your area and build relationships.”

And he’s been selling his area since taking his current post about six years ago. Smith previously worked for several organizations, including the Blues Foundation and River City Management on Memphis’ famed Beale Street.

His journey back to the Delta began eight years ago, when Smith got a call from former Mayor Chuck Jordan, who, at that time, was still working at Planter’s Bank.

“Chuck knew me as Chuck knew everybody,” Smith said. “He called me and said the director position at the CVB was open, and he wanted me to apply for it and move back to the Delta.”

Though Smith declined, saying the timing wasn’t right, he stayed on Jordan’s radar.

“About a year and a half later or two years later, Chuck called again and said the position was open. He said, ‘I sure wish you’d consider applying for it,’” Smith said, adding he had basic knowledge of what CVB directors do as his mother, Perry Smith, was the director of Greenwood’s CVB for a number of years.

Smith, who had just married his wife, Laura, accepted the job the second go-around.

“At that point, moving back to the Delta was something we were open to,” he said. “I knew Greenville - I came over here growing up; I knew the Delta; I was passionate about music and the blues, obviously from the other jobs I had; and I thought I could do some things here.”

And, since making this his home in October 2008, he has capitalized on the area’s rich blues history, which has directly influenced tourists visiting the area.

“It’s grown. If you talk to people in the city, they see it. They probably can’t articulate it, but everybody agrees there’s been a change in the past three to four years. People can see some progress and some good things happening,” Smith said.

“Concretely, what you can see is that we’ve had a 7 percent increase in tourism revenue year-over-year since I’ve been here, on average. That’s great, especially through the biggest recession since the Great Depression.”

It wasn’t that way when he got here, though. And, he’ll be the first to tell you that change was warranted from city officials and residents alike.

“The (Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival) was still going strong, though it had its ups and downs, and the Leland Highway 61 Blues Fest was here, but that was basically it,” he said.

Greenville, which at the time was battling a bad reputation due to its high crime rate and deteriorating downtown, needed something positive to attract tourists.

“We had so much potential, if you could just see it. I had left and come back, and I knew what an interest there was in the blues,” Smith said, as he began talking about international blues societies.

Greenville - the Delta - has the blues, Smith said.

“What Greenville has, as the biggest city in the Delta, is more resources, more potential sponsors and that was there, you just had to have the right set of circumstances to get that clicking together,” he said. “We don’t have a beach, and we don’t have mountains, but we have this great culture and interesting history. If you create something big enough to draw people here, then you get them to see the rest.”

Smith clicked it together by spearheading the multi-award-winning Bridging the Blues event three years ago and then last year, by helping get the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival off the ground.

He also is behind the scenes when it comes to the area’s other festivals, including the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, Leland Crawfish Festival, Frog Fest and Sam Chatmon Blues Festival, as well as events, including the state tennis tournament and Winterville Mounds’ multi-million dollar expansion.

“To have a successful festival, it takes people who want to get it done and are very passionate about music, or say hot tamales, and they say, ‘we are going to do this’ and don’t stop,” he said.

___

Information from: Delta Democrat-Times, http://www.ddtonline.com

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