(Editor’s Note: This is the second of three pieces looking at the changing dynamics of a town in southern Oklahoma. Part one can be found here.)
In a community that values the privacy of its most famous residents, the media frenzy surrounding Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert’s divorce was a bit hard to swallow.
“It was as if a dark cloud descended over us that day,” said Ray Lokey, Johnston County Capital-Democrat publisher and editor. “It just broke my heart. I see them more as people than superstars. Anyone going through marital issues, it’s just very emotional and hard.”
While national celebrity magazines adorned their covers with salacious details and dour images of the country music stars, the local newspaper buried the story in its weekly July 22 edition on page four.
Truthfully, Tishomingo is still reeling, even though it continues to experience economic growth, Lokey said. Residents compare the feeling to the loss of a loved one.
“Since the divorce was so abrupt — I think it was finalized in two weeks — we didn’t get a chance to tell Miranda how we felt,” Lokey said. “I think a lot of people in town would just like the chance to say, ‘Thank you.’”
Despite divorce, ‘Things are going quite well’
The divorce carried even more weight for the rural town, with a population of 3,000, because Lambert has been credited as a “catalyst” for the community’s economic growth through her business ventures, such as the Pink Pistol store, MuttNation’s Redemption Ranch (a safe haven for dogs), and the Ladysmith (a boutique bed and breakfast).
After word spread, several news outlets speculated about the small town’s economic future with dire predictions, but, in a twist, local residents note tourism has increased rather than decreased in the past few months.
“As of yet, we have no negative impact that can be measured economically,” Tishomingo Mayor Tom Lokey said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but general observations seem to indicate that things are going quite well.”
Tishomingo Sales Tax
(Town sales tax is 3 percent)
July 2012: $44,088.21
July 2013: $52,990.10
July 2014: $52,083.00
July 2015: $55,795.12
Aug. 2012: $55,079.83
Aug. 2013: $63,685.62
Aug. 2014: $61,064.43
Aug. 2015: $67,173.01
(Tishomingo City Hall, Sales Tax Comparison Reports)
Although the divorce was announced in July, Tishomingo sales tax reports show a 7 percent increase for the month of July and a 10 percent increase for the month of August compared to last year.
Several business owners indicated that business had actually increased in September and October as well, with car lots full and tourists swelling in the streets even mid-week, but those numbers will not be available for another 60 days, Mayor Lokey said.
As recently as this month, a new retail store called Leopard Vine, co-owned by Natacha Crook and Kasey Burkhalter, opened on Main Street on Oct. 4, joining a group of successful mostly female-led businesses.
Merchants credit the continued success to Lambert’s decision to keep her businesses in the area open.
Staci Addison, general manager of the Pink Pistol and the Ladysmith, attributes Lambert’s decision to continue business as usual to her skills as a leader.
“You know when something’s not right or when it is right,” Addison said. “You feel it in your core, and that becomes your compass as a leader. And if you do that, like Miranda has, you’re probably going to be — 99 percent of the time — on the right path.”
It’s not a stretch for Lambert to keep business operations running as usual. Her businesses are successful, Addison said, and Lambert still has roots in the area. (She owns a farmhouse and land outside of Tishomingo that she purchased prior to the marriage.)
“We’re like the children in a broken home,” Mayor Lokey said. “We have these two very important people, Blake and Miranda, that we care for and support because of their recognition of this community, and we don’t want to choose one over the other. We want the best for both of them and whatever their aspirations may be.”
Shelton remains beloved
Despite the divorce, Lambert and Shelton appear to be on good terms, a reassurance to a small town that loves them both.
In addition to friendly Twitter interactions between the two country stars, The Pink Pistol still carries “Team Blake” merchandise, and Red Dirt Décor, owned by Shelton’s mother Dorothy Shackleford along with family friend Jeff Burns, still sells signs that read, “If you ain’t God or Miranda Lambert, take your boots off.”
“We love Blake,” Addison said. “We still watch The Voice faithfully, and we get excited when our guests get to interact with him. We encourage guests, when Blake drives by in his pickup truck, to sneak out the window and get on the balcony and yell, ‘Hey, Blake, I love you!’”
Locals say although they are not feeling a negative impact from the divorce, even if tourism did dip, Tishomingo is in better standing than it was three years ago.
“The investments and infusion of capital are already in place,” Ray Lokey said. “There were stores on Main Street that hadn’t been renovated in 50 years, and those buildings have been renovated now, so they are in the best shape they’ve been in 50 years. Tishomingo still has a fresh start.”
The rest of Tish steps up
Take for example, The Indie Cinema, a great source of pride for locals. Once a beacon for teenagers and young people, the old movie theater shuttered its doors in the mid 1990s.
Local couple Jeff and Amy Caskey purchased the building in July 2014.
“We drove through town one afternoon and saw the ‘For Sale’ sign on the building, and right away God put it on our hearts to purchase and renovate it, even though we had full-time jobs and knew zero about theater ownership,” Amy Caskey said.
Because of legal and weather constraints, the renovations took a full year to complete. The couple even had a baby during the process.
On July 31, the theater’s doors reopened for the first time in 20 years. Caskey said the success of Lambert’s businesses did not factor into their decision to open the theater.
“What [Lambert] has done for Tish is amazing,” Caskey said. “Main Street is alive, and it is beautiful. But we knew that with the support of our community, we could sustain a business on our own.”
Perhaps even more astounding than Tishomingo’s economic turn, despite the divorce, is the increased level of community involvement.
“There has been a lot of introspection about how our community is run,” Addison said. “What are we doing to support each other? What are we doing so that what we have here is recognized as a great source and taken good care of, whether it be the businesses on Main Street or the kids running down the street?”
Addison, along with the Pink Pistol and Ladysmith staff, tutor five days a week at the local elementary school. Addison also offers the Platinum Ballroom free of charge for community events.
“I want the entity that I have influence over to make sure we are being good stewards, not only to the guests that come into our facility, but also to the community at large,” Addison said.
This value of community is a trait shared with her famous boss.
Stories of Lambert’s involvement abound: how she gave school children free ice cream inside the Pink Pistol on the first day of school, how she dressed as Glenda the Good Witch on Halloween and handed costumed children candy from her storefront, how she rode in the holiday parade in disguise and even dressed as the town mascot.
“Sometimes communities are hard to break in to,” Addison said, “and I have found with this one, although it has its quirks and people have disagreements amongst themselves, I think for the most part it’s overwhelmingly welcoming.”
Lambert repeated Addison’s sentiment, quipping, “The people [in Tishomingo] embraced me like family, even though I’m a Texan.”
Lisa Rose, owner of Spa211, took this appreciation for community a step farther in 2014. Motivated by the sense of community she witnessed while visiting family in Italy, she helped create Summer Nights, a project she has now expanded to take place throughout the year.
Also, toward the end of 2014, Rose founded the Tishomingo Merchant’s Association. Each month, the group of retailers — mostly women — hold meetings to pitch ideas and volunteer money for citywide events. The goal: draw locals out of their homes and foster a greater sense of community.
Free of charge, the community events occupy the length of downtown Main Street one Saturday a month. Local singers perform in the Chickasaw Garden Park between the Pink Pistol and Baker’s Mercantile. Children jump in bouncy houses. High school agriculture students host a petting zoo. Vendors sell sweets, and a local artist does face paintings. Other events have included an ice cream social, a sidewalk chalk art contest, and a car show.
The Chickasaw Nation also participates, showing outdoor movies with free admittance at the Chickasaw Nation Capital lawn, where people can bring their children and lie on quilts while eating free popcorn.
“On weekends, Tishomingo used to be a ghost town,” Rose said. “We saw how our more famous residents invested in this community, but it’s taken the rest of the town stepping up, too.”