OCEAN SPRINGS — There’s a misperception of Mississippi in many circles, but after the December issue of Southern Business & Development magazine (SB&D) is released, economic development officials across the state are hoping that will disappear.
That’s because in the upcoming issue of SB&D, three Mississippi cities have been selected as “The South’s Best Downtowns.” George L. Freeland Jr., CED, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation Inc., was thrilled to find out that Ocean Springs was one of the cities selected as having one of the best downtowns in the South.
“Southern Business & Development is one of our more prominent economic development/site selection trade magazines,” Freeland said. “This magazine makes its way onto the desks of site selection and corporate executives all over the country. Those are the types of individuals who are going to hear the message of Ocean Springs.”
Freeland said the SB&D article speaks to the fact that Ocean Springs has a small town cosmopolitan flair, and that Mississippi is a desirable location for not only businesses, but also for residents who want to raise a family and pursue an education.
“And when we speak to the value of Ocean Springs in that sense we’re speaking to the value of the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast and Mississippi overall,” Freeland said.
Margaret Miller, the director of the Ocean Springs Chamber-Main Street-Visitors Center, said the diversity of businesses was especially critical to the city being named by SB&D.
“We’ve had a good downtown for years and have been in the Main Street program for 13 years,” Miller said. “We’ve added a museum, retail stores, galleries and restaurants, as well as professional offices. The mix has been important.”
Over the last 10 to 15 years, people have sized down where they live.
“They want the amenities of downtowns, and that’s the opportunity, I always said,” Miller said. “But I think the community has to realize how significant the downtown is to everyone and they have to, in a positive sense, take ownership in their downtown and educate people to the fact that healthy, viable downtowns complement businesses.”
Publisher Mike Randle of Birmingham-based SB&D, said downtowns are vital to the economic development of cities. While preparing to write the article about the best downtowns of the south, Randle called several consultants, one from Atlanta.
“When he goes into a community one of the first two things he looks at are the public schools and the downtown,” Randle said.
SB&D had for years written about the importance of bringing industrial parks online, as well as quality labor and training to attract industry. However, Randle said, “A soft factor like a downtown never really registered for us.”
That was when Randle decided an article was in order. He and his staff got on the phones and called state economic development organizations, site selection consultants, Main Street organizations and others. He was shocked at the few nominees SB&D received. Only about 20%, he said, would qualify on the major market level for having vibrant downtowns.
“Many of them had vibrant midtowns, but that’s not what we’re talking about here,” Randle said. “We were talking about the central business district.”
More nominations were received from the mid-market level, but the small market level was where most of the nominees were found.
Randle’s conclusion: “This is a relatively new issue and something that the major and mid-markets are scrambling to resolve,” Randle said. “But apparently for many of the smaller markets like Ocean Springs, it’s a little easier to pull off because it’s not such a large project. If you can pull off a vibrant downtown you’re pulling off the toughest thing there is to pull off.”
Miller said the distinction given to Ocean Springs by SB&D was a result of 13 years of hard work by the community.
“I think this community 13 years ago decided we were good but we could be better and the community really took hold,” Miller said. “Consequently, I think it made Ocean Springs, Jackson County and the state better.”
Randle said, “Before we started writing about this I would have said what does a downtown matter? Apparently though things are changing. And having a vibrant downtown may be something that labor needs. That was the kind of angle we were trying to take.”
Columbus and Hattiesburg were also selected as having the best downtowns of the south. The three Mississippi cities were three of 30 downtowns in 17 states selected by SB&D.
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1042.