By BECKY GILLETTE
MBJ Staff Writer
When most people think about economic development, recruitment of industries like the new Nissan plant comes to mind. But the Mississippi Main Street program, which encourages preservation and redevelopment of downtown areas and other key commercial districts, has helped spark nearly $1 billion in investments since 1993.
“The Main Street program has developed into one of the more successful economic development programs in the nation, and certainly in Mississippi,” said Bob Wilson, director of program services for the Mississippi Development Authority’s (MDA) Mississippi Main Street program. “In Mississippi we have 39 active programs in communities that range in size from Tunica with 1,100 people up to Biloxi with 53,000 people.”
Since 1993 about $977 million in private investment has been seen in cities with Main Street programs, in addition to $93 million in public investments.
The Main Street program started out as a preservation program launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the late 1970s and early 1980s because of the decline of downtowns across the country. The downtowns began to suffer because of the exodus of businesses to malls and outlying shopping centers and population migrations to the suburbs. Large sums of money were put into urban renewal efforts.
“As we now know, the urban renewal programs often did more harm than good,” Wilson said. “A lot of money went into these things, but not a lot of thought. It was just a reaction to people moving away to the suburbs. The National Trust for Historic Preservation saw the Main Street program as a way to stop the decline by renovating buildings to their original state. What happened is that the business community reacted positively. By paying attention to the preservation aspects of a downtown, it created businesses and jobs, which, of course, is the bottom line of an economic development program.”
Ironically, a lot of the things that led to the migration shift away from the downtown areas — crime, traffic, taxation and infrastructure — are now leading people back to downtowns. Downtowns are now more valued for providing a sense of place, engendering pride in the community.
Wilson said more efforts are being made to develop housing in downtown areas on the top floors of businesses. Residents like being able to walk to restaurants, stores and public facilities like the library and post office instead of driving everywhere.
“They can eliminate commuting, which means they can spend more time with their family,” Wilson said. “That speaks to the quality of life issues that are so important to people today.”
New Albany represents one of the biggest success stories for the Main Street program in Mississippi. In a few short years the downtown area has gone from having one out of three buildings vacant to 98% occupancy.
“We had a lot of people buy into the concept early on who put a lot of money and efforts into renovating buildings,” said Cary Weeden, Main Street manager for New Albany. “That showed other property owners the difference renovations could make, so they have followed suit, as well. We have seen a domino effect.”
Weeden said it takes community development before you can have economic development. In addition to the direct benefits from revitalizing a downtown or other main commercial district, having a healthy central business district spurs other economic development.
“One thing the economic development prospects want to see is how successful the downtown is,” Weeden said. “It definitely helps with industrial recruitment and such.”
New Albany recently won an award for being the best-organized Main Street association in the state.
In Ocean Springs there are two other main business corridors that are part of the Main Street program in addition to the city’s downtown area. Government Street and Highway 90 are part of the program in addition to the downtown area of Washington Street.
Gaye Aultman, assistant director, Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce, Main Street and Visitor’s Center, said being a Main Street city shows the community has pride.
“A lot of what the chamber does parallels the direction of the Main Street program such as promoting renovation, business retention, commercial development and enhancement of the city’s appearance,” Aultman said. “Like the chamber, Main Street is a voice for business. Main Street is good business.”
Aultman said it all comes down to making the commercial districts appealing places for residents, tourists and businesses.
Stacy Pair, executive director of the Philadelphia Main Street Association, echoes those sentiments.
“We would like to see the downtown area become a community hub again as it has been in the past,” Pair said. “We’d certainly like to revitalize the existing businesses and be able to recruit new businesses into this area. Making downtown a viable, attractive place is one of our goals for Main Street.”
Philadelphia is one of five new cities recently added to the Main Street program. The other four cities are Leland, Magee, Prentiss and Southaven. Southaven is unique in that it doesn’t have a traditional downtown because it evolved as a bedroom community to Memphis. Southaven wants to create a sense of place for community by designing and developing a downtown center.
Diane Hill, manager of Southaven’s Main Street program, said that since the city doesn’t have an identifiable center, what they hope to accomplish is create a sense of downtown in the original commercial district of Southaven. Businesses that will be impacted are expected to be the biggest supporters of the program, but community volunteers will also be a big help, Hill said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.