Main and Mulberry Podcast: Sherry Smith-Ellington, Alexandria Pineville Area CVB

Alexandria, Louisiana is all about an intense history dating back to WWII, when important military drills and exercises were fashioned, and where decision-making presidents and generals met. In Alexandria, you’ll find a mix of old and new, and we spoke with Sherry Smith-Ellington to learn more about it.

Transcript

00:14 Anna Bell: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m your host, Anna Bell, and today I’m so excited to have with us Sherry Smith Ellington, the executive director and CEO for the Alexandria Pineville area Convention and Visitors Bureau in Alexandria, Louisiana. So, Sherry, thanks so much for making the time to be with us today.

00:38 Sherry Smith Ellington: You’re so welcome Anna, I’m so thrilled to be here with you.

00:42 AB: We’re excited to learn all about Alexandria Pineville area, and if you can be our tour guide today, we’re excited to learn a little bit more so.

00:52 SE: Alright.

00:53 AB: For our listeners who have not yet had the opportunity to visit, though, maybe we can start by you telling us geographically where you’re located in the state of Louisiana.

01:03 SE: Okay, we are right in the center of the state of Louisiana, we call ourselves the heart of Louisiana. We are right out on I-49, going north and south, and the Red River goes right between the two sister cities of Alexandria and Pineville. So we’re in a beautiful area, easy access to everywhere.

01:25 AB: I love that. The heart of Louisiana.

01:27 SE: Yes, yes, that’s what we think we are.

01:30 AB: Have you been in the area long, Ms. Sherry?

01:32 SE: I’ve been here for a little over 16 years now.

01:35 AB: Wow. So you know a thing or two, then.

01:38 SE: A thing or two, yes. [chuckle]

01:41 AB: We’ve picked a good tour guide.

01:43 SE: Well, we are gonna do the best we can.

01:46 AB: [chuckle] This year, in particular, though, has been a challenge for a lot of CVBs and those in the tourism industry to really have to think outside the box. In what ways, Ms. Sherry, have you and your team been creative this year, just encouraging your visitors to safely enjoy the Pineville Alexandria area?

02:07 SE: Well, we are a smaller community, so it’s easy to stay safe and not have to be in the middle of large crowds, so we think that’s a good thing. We have a wonderful history in our area, and so we are really promoting weekend getaways, family staycations and that sort of thing, to come to our area and experience the outdoor activities as well as our arts and culture district, which is in downtown Alexandria, and a lot of history over in the Pineville area as well. So we are just concentrating on those smaller gatherings, and really, staycations and weekend getaways for families, girls’ weekends, that sort of thing. So I think we have plenty to offer.

03:01 AB: You’d be surprised, you can live in an area for a long time and still have so much to learn.

03:07 SE: That right. That’s exactly right. I think we take for granted what’s right around surrounding in our area, what’s right in our own backyard, so to speak.

03:17 AB: That’s right. Maybe one of the lessons this year is probably teaching us.

03:22 SE: Yeah, this has been an opportunity for us to dig deeper and see what else can we do for our citizens as well as for our visitors. It has been challenging, but we think we’re here ready to meet that challenge.

03:43 AB: As a CVB, you do have a lot of roles and responsibilities within the area. Maybe we can talk about that a little bit, more than just ribbon cuttings, right?

03:52 SE: That’s right. Yeah, we do have great partners. We partner with the Chamber of Commerce and with our economic development organizations, as well as the cities of the parish. And so we do work together and depend on our partners to help us. And we’re very fortunate to have those strong partnerships so that we can all work together and make sure that when the visitors come into our area, they are made welcome by everyone.

04:19 AB: Yeah, that’s so important. It’s so important that you have that support, and that’s wonderful. You said 16 years, that’s wonderful, being in the area. If you had to narrow down just one really unique thing about Alexandria that you really appreciate, what would that be? What makes Alexandria special to you, Ms. Sherry?

04:39 SE: Well, I think it’s our history because I think I didn’t realize until I came here, how important Alexandria, Oliver Apis Parish is, Pineville… The history, the military history. Things happened right here in downtown Alexandria that really charted the course for the world, for even up until now, because decisions concerning World War II were made right here in Alexandria. And the military maneuvers happened here, so tens of thousands of soldiers came right here to be trained to go into combat in World War II. And we had the Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, all stayed right there at the Bentley, and there is a unique story that The Mirror Room is the bar in the basement of the Bentley, which is really nice, and one of our things that we still promote today. But they would sit down there and talk around the table and write little notes on napkins, and then go up and put those notes together. That’s a unique story that we have, but that history is something that happened right here that affects the entire world. And it happened right here, and that’s something that nobody else can say. That’s something that is actively a…

[overlapping conversation]

06:04 SE: Yeah, that’s central Louisiana alone. That, I think that’s the most impressive thing, really, to me. And speaking of history, the Civil War history is very strong here as well. During the war, as a matter of fact, Alexandria was burned nearly to the ground. Just a few buildings were left, the cathedral being one, and Kent Plantation House being another, but… And there’s the Forts Randolph and Buhlow over in Pineville, that’s a Civil War fort. And then we have the historic cemeteries over there. And Mt. Olivet Church over there was used as a hospital for the Union soldiers at that time. But Alexandria really did bounce back, but that’s something that we don’t have some of… The reason we don’t have a lot of the antebellum homes like some other cities do is because it was burned down to the ground.

07:03 AB: Wow, wow. But that sounds like that military history is a real draw for tourists in this place.

07:09 SE: It really is. We also, we have the military museum over at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, and then we have a small World War II museum also in the Bentley Hotel right here downtown Alexandria. So we have… Our downtown historic and arts district, as I mentioned, is really unique, I think, to a city our size. We have the most wonderful art museum, and we also have River Oaks Square Arts Center, which it houses artists. And sometimes, you can catch them doing their painting or their sculpturing and whatever, and they’ll allow you to come in and watch what they’re doing. And there’s a wonderful gift shop there as well, so you can go in and buy things from the artists or go over into the gift shop, and it’s just a wonderful place. And then the Coughlin Saunders Performing Arts Center is right across the street there, and we have wonderful performances there, an outstanding symphony, and plus, many performing arts organizations. And we just have… There is something going on all the time.

08:22 AB: All the time. That’s what it sounds like. I’m so glad to hear, though, about the arts. It sounds like that’s an important part of Alexandria when we come to visit with you that we need to look into and experience all the art the area has to offer.

08:39 SE: We also have Arna Bontemps Museum, which is an African-American museum. I think it was the first in the state, actually, and it’s just wonderful, as well. Arna Bontemps is a famous author and he grew up in that house and went on to write many books and he was very famous. So that’s very interesting to our area.

09:02 AB: Wow. That’s wonderful.

09:03 SE: It is, and…

09:04 AB: I have to back up for a second, Ms. Sherry. So are we able to stay in the Bentley Hotel, or is it…

09:09 SE: Absolutely. You better come on down, girl, it’s just wonderful.

09:14 AB: Nice.

09:14 SE: They’re so great over there, there’s a great restaurant, The Bentley Room downstairs. It is wonderful food. And then there’s The Mirror Room that I referred to earlier. It is opened, it is… It has a tapas menu, or you can order from The Bentley Room as well. And it’s just a very unique place to go. And then there are a couple of other very, very unique bars downtown as well. And restaurants, from the very casual to the upscale in our downtown area within walking distance. So it’s really, really easy and a fun time for the whole family. We also have the TREE House Children’s Museum within walking distance to downtown as well. So as I…

09:57 AB: Wow. Well, do you mind telling us a little about the TREE House Museum as well?

10:02 SE: Well, it is… It’s just, it’s your learning museum for the… It’s a hands-on museum for children. And then there’s an outdoor play area with a train out there that it doesn’t… That kids can get on. It isn’t, it doesn’t…

10:17 AB: That sounds like right up my son’s alley, he would be on there in a second. [chuckle]

10:21 SE: Yeah, I believe, and it’s an old firetruck out there, too, that they…

10:24 AB: Okay, fun.

10:25 SE: Think fun, fun.

10:26 AB: Fun.

10:27 SE: It’s just, as I’d mentioned before, it’s something great. And of course, the river runs right through and we have a great area where you can go… There’s an amphitheater right there looking over the river. And so we have a lot of performances there, and there are walking trails all around from in Alexandria around that riverside area. And then also, you can walk over the bridge to Pineville, and there’s great walking trails over there at Forts, well, Randolph and Buhlow. You can fish, hike, bike. There’s a wonderful museum there, a Civil War museum, and the visitor center there, and it’s just…

11:09 AB: It’s so wonderful.

11:09 SE: So we have…

11:10 AB: So many wonderful things. I’m sure we can fill our days really quickly when we come to visit [11:14] ____.

[overlapping conversation]

11:14 SE: Absolutely. [chuckle] We’re concentrating now on things that people can do right now. And so we do have those outdoor activities they can enjoy, as well as the museums and the performances that are downtown. And also, we have Kisatchie National Forest with kayaking.

11:39 AB: Wow.

11:40 SE: They can do that now. And also, over in Woodworth, we have Indian Creek Campgrounds. They are open now. And that’s just a wonderful camping and outdoor activities over there as well, and…

11:51 AB: That’s been one thing I’ve noticed a lot in talking with a lot of CVBs in other towns and areas, people have really gotten outdoors this year. It’s been one way to still get out of the house a little bit. You go outdoors, people still feel safe to do that. So that’s wonderful, you have all of those different amenities and things available to your visitors, as well as your residents. I’m sure your residents really appreciate it, yeah.

12:15 SE: Yeah, they do. And as I said before, it has been an opportunity for us to also let our residents know what they can do. They may not want to travel to places they might have planned to go, there’s plenty…

12:27 AB: Staycation, right? A staycation. [chuckle]

12:29 SE: Staycation, that’s correct. Just like the lieutenant governor says, “It’s all about staycations right now. And so… But we’re also centrally located, so we’re very easy for people to reach. Within two hours, you can be just about anywhere. We’re very close to Mississippi, to Texas, and not far from Arkansas. You’re close enough for people from all the surrounding areas to get to us and have plenty to do for the entire family.

12:55 AB: Ms. Sherry, I do wanna ask about your downtown area, though. Can you kinda describe downtown Alexandria for us, if we were walking through downtown with you today?

13:06 SE: Well, as I’ve told you before, the river runs right through and there’s a bridge that connects Pineville and Alexandria. Our offices are actually right at the foot of the Jackson Street Bridge, which is a drawbridge. And sometimes, the boats come through and you hear the big old horn warning that the barges are coming through. It’s just really neat.

13:31 AB: Are there newer buildings?

13:35 SE: Yeah.

13:35 AB: ‘Cause I know you said everything was burned down at one point. Are there newer buildings, older?

13:39 SE: There’s kind of a mixture, there’s a lot of mid-century architect here, and so it’s very… And then there’s some more modern, and then there are some early 19… Early 20th century here, and it’s just kind of a mixture. But if you’re at this end of town, which is the convention center, the Randolph Convention Center and the CVB offices, and then you walk right across… Connected to us is a walkway that goes right to the Bentley, and then also, we’re connected to the Holiday Inn Hotel, which is a full service hotel, then you walk down the street and you can… There’s a wonderful restaurant at both of the hotels. I mentioned The Bentley Room, but there’s also a great restaurant, The Levee, the Holiday Inn.

14:35 AB: So is your cathedral downtown? ‘Cause I know that’s…

14:38 SE: Yeah, the cathedral is right across the street, and so is Emmanuel Church, and so we have, at certain times of the years, we do have tours. We had a great walking tour of downtown, we have a brochure, we can either provide you with someone to go with you or we’ll give you the brochure and you can take your own tour. And then as I said, we have some very unique bars in that downtown area in the City Hall and across the street, and [15:06] ____ is a very upscale Diamond Grill restaurant, which used to be Schnack’s Jewelry Store years ago, and it has been restored. It’s a beautiful building, and it’s more upscale dining, wonderful food and…

15:19 AB: Wow, that sounds delicious, that sounds wonderful.

15:23 SE: And we have Desoto Cafe just around the corner, we have a great Critic’s Choice, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful restaurant, and it’s open for lunch downtown, and Embers right across the street. So we’ve just got… And Word of Mouth is another small restaurant, right near the court house, which is on the other end of downtown, and we have great… We have the Sentry Drug Store, which is, as you walk in, it looks like a 1950s, old diner in there. It’s just real fun. Plus, it’s like a great Louisiana Gifts in there, and Vicki Allen is an author. She and her husband own that facility, and she writes books, so you can buy some of her books in there, and it’s just a very… As I’m talking, I’m thinking, “Oh,” [chuckle] I’m thinking about all this.

[overlapping conversation]

16:22 SE: There’s a lot of stuff in this little small area here, and we’re very, very proud of it.

16:30 AB: I’m sure you are. It sounds like it. I can hear the pride in your voice, and that’s wonderful.

16:37 SE: It’s a great place to be.

16:39 AB: Ms. Sherry, where is the best place for our listeners who are all excited about coming to visit you in the Alexandria Pineville area, to prepare their visit? Where can they go to really map out their trip?

16:56 SE: They can go to our website, which is alexandriapinevillela.com. And it has all the information that they need to find out what to do, when to come, and what to expect when they get here.

17:09 AB: And one thing I noticed when I visited the website was the list of events, you’ve got a lot going on.

17:16 SE: Yes, events. Of course, again, COVID has taken care of some of that, but for Christmas, we still have several events going on. Parades are rolling, Pineville Parade is gonna happen, Alexandria balls, and so we have a lot of smaller events for Christmas. Some of our larger ones, we can’t do, of course, but we have a lot of very nice smaller Christmas events that people can do.

17:42 AB: Still a lot to look forward to, right?

17:44 SE: Yeah, we have a lot of lighting displays, so we have some out at England Airpark, they have a wonderful display that you can drive through there, and that’s a beautiful area anyway, just to see. And we also are going to have holiday open house with a lot of our shops are gonna be opened and it’s going to be a three-day event.

18:09 AB: That’s wonderful, kind of encouraging to shop local, right?

18:12 SE: Yes. And we really are, and we are part of the Holiday Trail of Lights campaign, which is cities from Louisiana up to North includes Shreveport-Bossier, Minden, Monroe-West, Munro, Natchitoches and Alexandria-Pineville. So there are lots of activities in our area for that, as I said, again, smaller events, but we have it going on for people.

18:42 AB: Ms. Sherry, we really do appreciate your time and your insight, sharing all these wonderful things with us about the Alexandria Pineville area. I am personally excited to come and visit you and get down to the Bentley Hotel and see that mirrored room. That sounds exciting to me.

19:00 SE: Yeah, it’s a great place to be. And as again, I said in Pineville, there are a lot of restaurants over there, most of our restaurants are open, and Pineville has some very good restaurants, very nice places. And also, as I mentioned, the forts and the museum, and it’s just… There’s plenty, plenty to do, and…

19:20 AB: Something for everyone.

19:22 SE: Yeah, we’re open for business and we wanna see as many visitors as we can possibly see in this time coming up. And we’re here. We can always contact us at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and we can answer any questions that they have or be glad to… If a small group comes in and needs to have a little guide to take them around and tell them things about Alexandria or Pineville, we can arrange that as well.

19:54 AB: Ms. Sherry, we appreciate you so much today, thank you for being our tour guide.

20:00 SE: Thank you. I enjoyed it so much and I appreciate you all stopping by, so to speak. [chuckle]

20:07 AB: Alright, guys. We hope you enjoyed this episode of Main and Mulberry. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell.

[music]

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