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Byhalia poised to make a comeback after devastating fire

BYHALIA — From the embers of a fire that devastated the largest building in downtown Byhalia in late December 2001, a plan is emerging to rebuild the Southern Corner — and along with it the economy of the downtown.

Things were starting to fall in place for Byhalia’s downtown before the fire that gutted the Southern Corner, which housed a restaurant on the ground level and apartments on the upper level.

“The fire hurt our little town real bad,” said Byhalia Mayor O.R. “Scooter” Dempsey. “We had several businesses there that stemmed off that restaurant and the apartments. That building was the drawing card for the downtown. When that ended, the rest of the businesses weren’t successful. The fire kind of killed the traffic coming into downtown.”

But now an architect, developer and a contractor have teamed together to restore the Southern Corner, a move that positions Byhalia’s downtown for a comeback. Mayor Dempsey said since work started on rebuilding the Southern Corner, he’s been kept busy taking business prospects on tours of the town.

“Our little town is on the edge of exploding, and has been for a long time,” said Dempsey, who went from being a part-time to full-time mayor in July to deal with all the increased business activity. “But now with DeSoto County spilling over, beyond a shadow of a doubt things are going to start happening. You can already see a difference. I’m getting calls every day from new businesses wanting to come to our town. So I stay on the road showing people the town and making them feel welcome. All projections are pointing to us, and evidently developers are seeing that because they are coming out of the woodwork.”

Sarah Sawyer, director of the Byhalia Area Chamber of Commerce, said three retail businesses and some offices closed after the fire this past year.

“Byhalia is an historic town with a lot of character,” Sawyer said. “People just don’t know it by driving through it at this time. We had a charming downtown, and now we have to rebuild. We have a lot of growth going on outside of the town in the interchange area, but we want our downtown back because the downtown is the heart of the town.”

Prior to the fire the chamber had purchased a 100-year-old building downtown that formerly housed a bank, and restored it into offices. “Things were starting to take off and the fire just devastated us all,” Sawyer said. “But it is bringing in new people. We are pulling together some key players to get some things done.”

Byhalia is located 10 miles from Collierville, Tenn., one of the fastest growing cities in Tennessee, and eight miles from Olive Branch, which is one of the fastest growing cities in Mississippi. While the town has a population of only about 1,000, there are 21,000 people who live within a few miles of town and a large traffic count. Now it is a matter of providing people with a reason to stop.

The location of Byhalia is considered both a blessing and a drawback. While it is located close to the major population centers, competing with larger cities for commercial activity is challenging.

The investors who want to put Byhalia’s downtown back on the right track by rebuilding the Southern Corner are architect Doug Thornton, Hernando, developer Jim Seay, also of Hernando, and contractor Jay Whittington of Olive Branch.

“We saw this as an opportunity to position ourselves for Byhalia’s growth,” said Thornton. “More importantly, it was an opportunity to revitalize downtown Byhalia. The three of us believe that good development is beneficial to the community as well as the developer.”

Currently work has started to stabilize the building while plans are made for potential tenants. Thornton said they can see a restaurant and apartments going back in the 7,000-square-foot building, along with possibly some office space and studio space for dance or aerobic exercise classes.

“We hope this will be the spark to bring back the downtown,” Thornton said. “We are also looking at some other properties downtown. We think the total picture is much bigger than this building. This is just one piece of the puzzle needed to make all of the downtown vibrant. “

Another major project important to Byhalia is the city’s purchase of the old high school building, which is being restored for city and county offices. The old high school has a main building of 20,000 square feet, and a newer building that is 11,000 square feet. The city purchased the property for $100,000, which went to the school’s athletic department. The renovations will cost about $1 million.

Mayor Dempsey said the renovated high school will be a huge asset to the city. Plans call for the campus to house city offices, a community center, a gymnasium, county satellite offices, the library and Northwest Community College classes.

“We are going to restore it back historically correct,” Mayor Dempsey said. “There is 10 acres of land with it, so we hope later to do an inner city park there.”

Other new growth underway in Byhalia includes a new shopping center, four new fast food restaurants and numerous residential developments.

“With developers pouring out of Memphis and DeSoto County, we are running water and gas in all different directions trying to cover all the new development,” Dempsey said. “We have put in 140 miles of new water main and 80 miles of gas line expansion.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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