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Program creates over $1 billion in investments for downtowns

Mississippi Main Street fostering downtown developments

At the Mississippi Main Street annual meeting on June 13, executive director Beverly T. Meng had a milestone announcement: the program devoted to economic development in downtowns across the state had crossed the $1 billion line in total investments.

“We were the first state to see over a billion dollars of reinvestment in Main Street programs,” said Meng. “This is cool for Mississippi because we always seem to be on the bottom. We’ve probably had the smallest state increase of dollars, yet we’ve come out with the largest number of jobs and businesses created by Main Street. We’ve learned in Mississippi that to succeed, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and put in a lot of sweat equity.”

In 1989, the Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA), a private nonprofit organization, contracted with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) to implement and manage the comprehensive program to revitalize downtowns across the state.

Some of the program highlights:

• Since 1989, the State of Mississippi has allocated $2.36 million to MMSA;

• Compared to a nationwide average of $2,504 per job, the cost of each job to the state is $154;

• Each state dollar invested in MMSA has leveraged $459 in private and public re-investment;

• The average cost per business created in a Main Street District nationwide is $10,090; and

• The average cost of each business to Mississippi in a Main Street District is $1,270.

“Since 1993, $1.085 billion has been made in investments in Mississippi, including $980.3 million in private money and $105 million in public investment,” said Meng. “During this time, 1,865 new businesses have been created in Main Street Districts in Mississippi; 160 businesses have expanded; 1,142 buildings have been improved; and 15,389 new jobs have been created.”

Because of a state budget crunch, public investments have decreased, from $330,000 to $281,000 in the last two years. However, MDA remains the association’s primary partner and major funding source, with the MMSA staff working closely with field managers of various divisions, particularly tourism and community services, said Meng.

“The Mississippi Development Authority is pleased to be a major funding source for the Mississippi Main Street Association,” said MDA spokesperson Sherry R. Vance. “MDA is proud of the quality work they have done throughout the state to improve the appearance of Main Street, to create jobs for our citizens, and to improve the overall quality of life for the community.”

Six cities joined MMSA in 2001: Leland, Lexington, Magee, Prentiss, Ripley and Southaven. When Macon joined earlier this year, the total was brought to 41 programs and 13 associate members.

“Main Street … is so grass roots,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want to revitalize the downtown in your community? That would be like not liking motherhood and apple pie.”

Main Street Communities have a population of 5,000 to 50,000 and Main Street Towns have a population under 5,000. Fondren Jackson is the only member of the Urban Neighborhood Main Street (UNMS) Program, and six urban neighborhoods are applying for UNMS status, said Meng.

“In a larger city, the focus is pretty much on the downtown district,” she said. “In a smaller community, it’s harder to separate the downtown from the rest of the community. It usually becomes a total overall community and economic development program.”

A few member highlights:

• A Main Street district since 2000, Tunica has the smallest population (1,175) in the MMSA;

• The City of Biloxi, a member since 1991, has the largest population (53,403), and has created the most jobs (4,559) since September 1993, when the cumulative reporting period began;

• The Town of Macon (population: 2,461) is the newest MMSA member;

• Of 111 upper floor apartments in MMSA districts, Columbus has created 71;

• The City of Tupelo, a member since 1991, has created the most new businesses (216); and

• The Main Street Communities that have been in the program the longest are Vicksburg and West Point. Both joined in 1984.

Member cities pay MMSA an annual fee, depending on the length of time in the program. The first year fee is $7,000, which includes nearly $150,000 of technical assistance and expertise through state support. The second year fee is $5,500, and the third year fee is $4,000. Every year after that costs $2,000, Meng said.

“When they first come into the program, it’s our covenant to the town to take them through a visioning, and a real detailed resource team week,” she said. “We bring in experts in whatever field they need the most assistance in, and we come in with a very specific and detailed action-oriented work plan. Then, we’re partners with them all the way through. We don’t get a town up and started and just say ‘bye.’ We go in for onsite consultation on an as-needed basis.”

About eight towns and cities are on the waiting list for the program, Meng said.

“Because we have a very small staff, we don’t want to bring them in and not be able to give them service,” she said. “And we have to continually service our older programs too. Some programs have been in Main Street since before the state program started, and they want to stay in the network. We provide quarterly training for Main Street managers and they learn more from each other than they ever learn from us.”

The small staff at MMSA includes Meng; Bob Wilson, director of program services; Missy Capocaccia, director of office services; Sam Kaye, director of design services; and Terri Copes, administrative assistant. Phil Hardwick of Mississippi Valley Gas is president for 2002-2003.

“Right now, we’re playing catch up,” Meng said. “It would be a very bad thing if we didn’t have a waiting list because I think it says we’re doing something good. We’re doing something the communities around the state really want.”

The Main Street programs are working much better than the federal urban renewal projects of the 1980s, which was a giveaway program, Meng said.

“The worst thing we ever did was spending those urban renewal dollars,” she said. “I think it was because, at that point and time, the interstate highway system had evolved. That created the suburbs. All the really great stores left downtown and followed the people to the ‘burbs. Then, the downtowns started that spiral of deterioration. Some person sitting in an office thought, ‘ah-ha, we’ll make malls out of our downtowns and people will come back and shop in them.’ That was when they tried putting roofs on downtowns and enclosing them. They put aluminum slipcovers over the beautiful architecture and in a lot of our towns, cut down vehicular traffic to make it a walking downtown mall. If they could do it wrong, they did it. They never stopped to realize why the malls were successful. That was because they were well funded, well organized, with a management element in place to coordinate store hours and days of opening.”

The National Main Street Center was created partly as a result of the damage, Meng said.

“We found out that you needed to have an organization that was focused purely on the downtown,” she said. “For that, it needed to have a public/private partnership organizational component. It needed management, so every downtown has a paid manager that coordinates the efforts of the volunteer board and committee. They needed to plan great promotions and they needed to focus on the design of their communities. Economic restructuring is the bottom line of their program. That is, helping existing businesses and services to expand and upgrade, a
nd c
reating an environment to attract new and other businesses.”

The Main Street Four Point Approach to downtown revitalization includes design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring.

“When we work with a town, it’s very comprehensive, based

About Lynne W. Jeter

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