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Thousands expected for second-annual Ham Jam

Philadelphia’s downtown square thriving

PHILADELPHIA — ”The Square” in this city’s downtown resembles hundreds of others scattered across the South. There’s a courthouse in the center surrounded by a diverse commercial mix. But many of those squares have come on hard times due to extensive development on the town outskirts. Not so with Philadelphia’s square — it’s prospering.

There are one-way streets on two sides of the courthouse and that traffic moves expeditiously. It’s comprised of a wide assortment of vehicles including, among others, logging trucks and cars with Alabama license tags either headed to or coming from the Pearl River Resort. The other two streets have a typical Southern slow pace as shoppers move about from their diagonally parked cars.

Steve’s on the Square occupies the southeast corner of the square. Proprietor Steve Wilkerson observes that the traffic on the one-way street alongside his upscale men’s store moves too fast to suit him. He estimates that 20%-25% of his customers come from outside Neshoba County, so he’d welcome more of that traffic pausing at the square.

He had a vision

Wilkerson had a vision during his Philadelphia Junior High days that he’d one day own a men’s store. After earning his accounting degree at Mississippi State, he worked at Herbert’s, a men’s store that’s no longer in business. Then in 1983, he mortgaged his home, got a loan from a local bank and founded Steve’s.

“I was 30 years old and my wife and I agreed that if it didn’t work, we had plenty of time to start over,” Steve reminisced with a grin. Now he’s preparing a letter to his customers expressing appreciation for their business the past 20 years.

Then he observed, “In today’s business climate, you better take care of your customer base rather than looking for more. Sometimes I’ve had better sales years yet I didn’t make any more money.”

How about the parking problem?

He rents his space from the Masonic Temple, which has weekly meetings upstairs above his store. “I’ve made all the building improvements and their rent structure has encouraged me to do that,” he said. “And generally speaking, rentals on the square are fair and equitable.

That’s among the reasons all of the square buildings are occupied.”

As for the age-old parking problem, “When people shop downtown they want to park at your door,” Wilkerson said. “We’ve tried everything, so I’ve quit worrying about it.” He does make sure that his employees park off-street away from the square.

There’s a bonding in the square, according to Wilkerson, that originated many years ago with the Downtown Merchants Association. That has now turned into the “Main Street” program run by the Community Development Partnership. Stacy Pair is Main Street’s executive director. She came to that post two years ago after a degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and 16 years with RPM Pizza.

Supporters include Chief Martin

“It was the best training I could have gotten for this job because I did so many things,” she said. “It included marketing and public relations….so it prepared me to sell Philadelphia and Neshoba County and in particular our downtown district. And we’ve been successful because of the downtown merchants like Steve Wilkerson who love the area and want to do everything they can to make it better.”

Then she points out how supportive Mayor Rayburn Waddell and the board of aldermen have been and to the commitment to downtown made by the board of supervisors. Pair is referring to the renovation of the justice court building on a downtown corner and to the remodeling work in progress on the main courthouse that will take a year to complete.

And she cites Chief Phillip Martin and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians as being another big supporter.

“To have all three of our government entities supportive of this project has made all the difference in the world — it’s made it easy,” she said. “A lot of my Main Street friends in other towns are envious of me because of that.”

‘Ham Jam’ and the newcomer

All of the public and private entities are coming together for the “Ham Jam Arts Festival” on April 11-12. It will include a bar-b-q contest sanctioned by “Memphis in May” that means the winners will advance to the national event — and that recognition will draw entries from the surrounding three-state area. Preliminary festivities will get underway April 10 and downtown streets will be closed off on April 12 when the main entertainment and arts and crafts are displayed.

“This will be Ham Jam’s second year and we’re expecting a big crowd,” Pair said.

One of the newcomers to the square’s lineup has been Ye Olde Drug Store & Deli that opened last October. “We didn’t recruit them, but we sure encouraged them,” Wilkerson said. It serves soup, sandwich, salad and dessert lunches in what was an old drug store and hospital that was restored by the Yates family, the original owners. It even has an ol’ timey soda fountain.

The leap of faith momentum

Perhaps the biggest surprise is one of the major players in the square’s success. David Vowell, a former grocer, is president of the Community Development Partnership. He and a partner took what he describes as “a leap of faith” a year ago when JCPenney closed its store on the square.

“That was an anchor store that needed to be filled,” Vowell said. “We bought that building and fixed it up and got the Feldman family to open Lee’s, a junior department store. Then we bought another building that had been closed for two years and now there’s a fine linen and music store in it.”

Pair said, “David set a pattern and that ball has continued to roll.”

Vowell is looking to the future. “ Our sales tax revenue continues to grow, so I see Main Street downtown as a way for us to bring more business and tourists into our community,” he said. “The courthouse restoration will solidify the square, so I can see downtown upper level housing and there’s some discussion about a restoring our downtown hotel.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com.

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