“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” — Mark Twain
GREENWOOD — That familiar quote from one of America’s most beloved authors may well apply to the downtown area of the Delta city of Greenwood.
For years, popular opinion has been that downtown was dead and the place to operate a business was out by the bypass. But there’s a renaissance going on downtown. Seemingly overnight, the area is bustling back to life with a vigor that hasn’t been seen since its heyday, decades ago.
Empty, decaying buildings are being rejuvenated, redeveloped and restored to house restaurants, shops and residential space. As investors purchase property, talk abounds about entertainment venues, coffee shops and other ventures aimed at turning the area into a tourist destination.
Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. Success never does.
“This has been six years in the making,” said Lisa Cookston, executive director of Greenwood’s Main Street program. “It began with the establishment of the Main Street program here in 1995, by State Rep. May Whittington, the program’s first director. She saw downtown’s potential and worked hard to draw people here. She got rid of the parking meters, got the Leflore County Courthouse’s clock working again and implemented a lot of landscaping.”
Whittington also succeeded in obtaining a $1.4-million grant to restore Keesler Bridge, a swinging bridge built in 1925 that is a main entrance to downtown, and had the Hotel Irving designated as one of Mississippi’s Top 10 Endangered Places in 2000. That designation helped to eventually secure a buyer for the hotel, which is proving to be the key to revitalization of the area.
“That hotel was considered a white elephant, but once it was bought by Fred Carl of Viking Range, there was a domino effect with others coming in with plans to redevelop the area,” Cookston said. “Our downtown has never been deserted, like the central business districts of some Delta towns. We’ve always had our city and county government here, as well as doctors, lawyers and accountants, but we lacked retail to draw others to the area.”
Greenwood businessman and city councilman Johnny Jennings and Dr. Todd Fincher, a local dentist, have also pondered the potential of the city’s downtown. Fincher has operated his practice in downtown’s historic Cotton Row district for 15 years, and Jennings spent many years downtown working for the local newspaper, the Greenwood Commonwealth. The two often brainstormed about how to get downtown thriving again, and ultimately began to seek investors for the Hotel Irving. Their plan was to purchase the four-story hotel and create upscale condominiums, with a restaurant on the first floor.
“We had planned to talk to 50 people about putting up $10,000 each to purchase the hotel. Fred Carl Jr. was the 31st person Todd and I talked to, and he said to us, ‘Wait! Don’t talk to anyone else,’” said Jennings.
Carl, president and chief executive officer of Viking Range Corporation, purchased the property in March and is turning it into a boutique hotel with a day spa, restaurant and banquet facilities that will not only serve Viking’s corporate clientele, but anyone interested in visiting Greenwood.
Fincher and Jennings reacted by buying other nearby buildings, for which they have various plans.
“I purchased the old Bank of Leflore, which was built in 1911,” said Fincher. “The top has over 2,000 square feet that is being renovated into an upscale condominium designed to look like a New Orleans-style shotgun apartment, with 12-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls, wood floors and original doors and hardware. It will be finished in about four months, then I’ll update the first floor, which will be for retail.”
“People have approached us about putting in a coffee shop or an antiques store there,” he added.
Fincher and Jennings also purchased the Fountain Department Store, which currently houses a printer and a vitamin and nutrition store.
“We may put condominiums on the top floor, and call it the Top of the Fountain,” said Jennings. “I also own a building across the street that has the Dancing Rabbit bookstore in the bottom, and a new tenant going in who will operate a stationery and paper products store.”
Fincher adds that they are searching for a building near the Hotel Irving that will suit some “serious” local investors who want to put in a blues or jazz club upstairs, and a restaurant or retail store downstairs.
Spurred by the activity and excitement surrounding downtown, Howard and Barbara Smith, owners of Smith & Co. Outfitters, are relocating their store from Park Avenue to downtown’s Fulton Street. They are rehabbing a three-story 1920s dry goods store, expected to open in August with a men’s clothing line, hunting equipment and a wildlife display. The second floor will house an archery range.
While she is excited about the projects underway and other proposed ventures, Cookston is equally enthused about a grant program Main Street recently kicked off to help existing downtown merchants.
“We have raised close to $14,000 for a fa