City of Wilson Aims to Become Luxury Tourist Destination

Staple, the lobby bar at The Louis, serves up drinks for guests of the boutique hotel and visitors to Wilson.
Staple, the lobby bar at The Louis, serves up drinks for guests of the boutique hotel and visitors to Wilson. (Jason Burt)
Jeff Kmiec
Jeff Kmiec (Jason Burt)
(Jason Burt)
(Jason Burt)
The Wilson Theatre, originally home to the community’s movie house, hosts live musical entertainment and meetings.
The Wilson Theatre, originally home to the community’s movie house, hosts live musical entertainment and meetings. (Jason Burt)
One of The Cottages at The Louis, an updated shotgun house for rent featuring modern amenities.
One of The Cottages at The Louis, an updated shotgun house for rent featuring modern amenities. (Jason Burt)
Eight rooms at The Louis open onto the Cottonwood, the boutique hotel’s rooftop terrace.
Eight rooms at The Louis open onto the Cottonwood, the boutique hotel’s rooftop terrace. (Jason Burt)

The pace of transforming the farm company town of Wilson into an upscale tourism destination picked up significantly this year. The Louis began taking reservations earlier this month, and the initial phase of the boutique hotel hosted its first overnight guest on May 5.

“This is the first of many things happening,” said Jeff Kmiec, CEO of Wilson City LLC, which owns 95% of property in the town.

The Grange at Wilson Gardens began plating meals on May 23, and a May 27 ribbon-cutting was set to mark the ceremonial opening of the Tin House private golf club on the outskirts of Wilson. 

More attractions and activities are on tap for the historic northeast Arkansas town once owned by Lee Wilson & Co. and currently home to about 710 residents.

The uptown changes to Wilson’s amenity package are part of an ongoing project to reimagine the small Delta community and boost its demographics and census.

“We want a balance of visions, to make an incredible place to live and visit,” Kmiec said.

“I was hired last October for the express purpose of connecting all the dots to build the Wilson brand as the best place to visit and best to live.”

Directing that dual vision is a public-private partnership between the town and Wilson City, with the $25 million-asset limited liability company doing the heavy lifting.

“We’re assessing the condition of everything in town — power, water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure,” Kmiec said. “We don’t want to overwhelm the system.”

Plans call for development of 100 single-family lots and with 61 units of U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and workforce housing called The Bungalows. That mixture of patio-style homes and attached dwellings is scheduled to open next spring.

Tapping into the economic ripples from the nearby Big River Steel and U.S. Steel’s new $3 billion steel mill in Osceola is helping spur the expansion of Wilson’s housing inventory.

When Kmiec was hired as Wilson City CEO last year, he was charged with overseeing and growing a venture with nearly $2 million in revenue. At the top of its corporate organizational chart is Gaylon Lawrence and The Lawrence Group, which is headquartered in Wilson and owns Wilson Partners, which owns Wilson City.

At one point, The Lawrence Group’s estimated agri holdings included citrus groves in Florida and up to 250,000 acres dominated by row crop land in the Midsouth. The portfolio also contains a small string of banks.

These days, the group’s land holdings are pegged at more than 115,000 acres and encompass a series of Napa Valley vineyards that Lawrence began assembling in 2018 with the purchase of Heitz Cellars.

Later deals added Wildwood Ranch, Haynes Vineyard, Burgess Cellars, Stony Hill and others to Lawrence Estates’ holdings. Last year, the vineyard portfolio was injected with a continental flair with the acquisition of the Cru Bordeaux Wine Estate in France.

Lawrence and his late namesake father led the purchase of Wilson and thousands of acres of surrounding farmland in a package deal with the Wilson family in 2010. Estimated at $110 million, the deal encompassed about 30,000 acres in Mississippi County when Gaylon Lawrence Sr. of Sikeston, Missouri, and his son, Gaylon Jr. of Nashville, Tennessee, purchased the property in December 2010.

Formed in 1886 by Robert Edward “Lee” Wilson, his namesake agricultural conglomerate at its peak owned 65,000 acres in northeast Arkansas, four towns in Mississippi County, a bank, farm equipment dealerships, short-line railroads and more.

The Grange and White's Mercantile

Wilson built the empire by buying and logging the bottomland hardwood forests and transforming the swampy fields of stumps into profitable fields of cotton, drained by networks of ditches and protected by levees.

Development of Wilson’s Tudor-style town center is tied to Robert E. Lee “Roy” Wilson II’s return from a honeymoon trip to England in 1928 with a new-found appreciation for English architecture. 

The Tudor-influenced commercial buildings bordering three sides of the town square form the northern portion of the Wilson Commercial Historic District. The northwestern building houses The Louis.

The northeastern building is home to the relocated Hampson Archeological Museum. Part of the Arkansas State Park system, the museum features a large collection of local native American artifacts amassed by Dr. James K. Hampson.

The southwestern building houses space leased to Tom Beckbe, a premium outdoor and sporting apparel store, and Wilson Pharmacy, along with the Wilson Theatre and Wilson Cafe. The theater space, which originally served as the local movie house, now hosts live musical entertainment and gatherings.

Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the district extends southeast across U.S. Hwy. 61 (aka the Blues Highway) and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks to the Lee Wilson & Co.’s four mills and cotton gin.

Create a Reason

Kmiec’s mission is to create a reason for coming to Wilson. At the top of the list is completing the conversion of the former administration offices of Lee Wilson & Co. into The Louis and getting the luxury hotel operational.

“The dream is 12 years old, but this is two years,” Kmiec said of Lawrence’s aspirations for Wilson and the hotel’s April 2021 groundbreaking.

The number of inquiries regarding The Louis made Kmiec wonder if the single most-asked question in Arkansas is “When is the hotel going to open?”

The Grange at Wilson Gardens, White's Mercantile and Wilson Motor Club

The Louis Hotel is starting with 16 rooms, a soft opening to work through the logistical kinks of launching a new high-end hospitality business. The custom armoires for the guestrooms are still on order. 

“That’s the last piece of the puzzle to fit,” Kmiec said of the first-phase opening of the hotel.

The hotel sports two bars: indoors at the elegant lobby-located Staple and outdoors in the second-floor terrace home of Cottonwood.

Mend Spa is on the drawing board to open next year in The Louis. The 10 treatment rooms, relaxation space and more will be open to the public as well as hotel guests.

By the end of this year, the room count at The Louis should be up to 50. Another 50 are projected to come on line by the end of 2024 to complete the project.

“The rest of the building is a work in progress,” Kmiec said. “We just finished the demolition.”

That one-time home of Gunn’s Supermarket adjoining the hotel is marked for redevelopment as The Wilson Motor Club. The former grocery store space is slated to premier in its new incarnation before year’s end with a lineup of classic cars collected by Gaylon Lawrence.

The list includes a 1955 Aston Martin DB2/4 MKI Drophead Coupe, 1955 Austin Healy, 1957 Corvette E57 Convertible, 1959 AC ACE, 1959 MGA Twin Cam, 1959 Porsche 356 Coupe, 1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider, 1961 Mercedes 190 Convertible, 1962 Jaguar E-Type and 1987 Porsche 911.

The former shopping space will be reworked into an immersive high-tech layout to showcase each of the cars.

This summer, two other projects are scheduled to join the amenity menu at Wilson. The Field Club will sport skeet and trap shooting options, and golf play for members and guests of the Tin House will open on the Founder’s Course.

The delayed opening is linked with the loss of two greens from the extended single-digit cold snap in December. “It’ll be 10 weeks before they’re really green,” said Burt Baine, director of golf.

The course is designed with a six-green complex to accept play from two different directions. The par 23 Delta routing plays at 2,101 yards and the par 23 Cypress at 2,180 yards.

The undulating putting green at Tin House pays homage to the famed Himalayas putting green at St. Andrews. An 18-hole course is expected to be open for play in spring 2025.

The course is part of a 400-acre tract that will also begin featuring phased housing development beginning in 2025.

Overlooking it all near the lake at Tin House is a pair of nesting bald eagles.