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A Mississippi Business Journal Q&A: MMSA director Beverly Meng delves into the secrets of success

Marketing Main Street frequently a rewarding challenge

This July marks Beverly Meng’s 11th anniversary as executive director of the Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA).

A native South Carolinian and a graduate of the University of South Carolina, Ming held the position of director of program services and assistant executive director for the South Carolina Downtown Development Association for nearly seven years before heading MSMA. Through the Mississippi Main Street Program, Meng works with 46 towns and 57 member towns on four key points to downtown revitalization: organization; promotion and marketing; design; and economic restructuring issues.

In addition to serving on the University of Southern Mississippi faculty, Meng conducts the mandatory Community Development Workshop for the Mississippi Municipal League and has also participated in training and downtown presentations in Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana and North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The Mississippi Business Journal chatted with Meng about the budget, priorities, Main Streets as an economic development tool and the recent annual awards ceremony.

MBJ: How does Main Street function as an economic development tool?

Beverly Meng: In today’s world, it is no longer a “nice-to-have” thing to have a healthy, vibrant downtown. It is a “got-to-have” thing! In this 21st century, people are making decisions on where to live, work and play based on quality of life. This is because one can now compete globally with any business from any community because of technology.

Investors, whether residents, industry, tourists, business or services, are locating based on communities where they would like for their employees, or themselves, to live. We have been told time and time again that the downtown acts as a reflection of the quality of life that towns offer, as well as a reflection of the leadership, both public and private of the community.

It is simply “curb appeal.” Think if you have visitors coming to your home. Don’t you always take them the prettiest route even if takes longer? If a community is projecting a decaying deteriorating image, it will not attract investors. On the flip side, if a community is projecting a positive, vibrant, sustainable image, it attracts investment. It can be as simple as keeping storefronts and window displays clean, well lighted and interesting. There’s nothing worse than a storefront that is dirty and has mannequins and missing body parts!

Our downtowns are the heart and soul of our communities. They are our front doors and living rooms. We want them to make a statement that this is a community that has a great sense of pride and place. The inhabitants are proud to be from this town. Site selection professionals have downtowns on their checklists for business and industry. If you are rotten at your core — your downtown — you will not be successful. You will most likely die as a community.

MBJ: Have budget cuts at the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) hurt MMSA operations?

BM: Fortunately, MMSA did not receive a cut; our funding was kept level. We are truly grateful and blessed that (MDA executive director) Leland Speed and (deputy director) Gray Swoope share the Main Street philosophy. We met with them just this morning, and they are assisting us in finding more funding for MMSA from the private sector as well as the public sector. Mr. Speed is probably our greatest cheerleader. He believes that every town should be doing “Main Street” for survival and sustainability.

MBJ: What priorities does MMSA have for the next few years?

BM: We are continually expanding the technical services, training and workshops that we offer. We have a new partnership with the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), which will be announced later in the fall, for exciting new signage for Main Street Programs. We are encouraging more historic preservation tax credit projects (a 20% tax credit). We are continuing our efforts to try to establish a statewide loan pool for Main Street towns. We are upgrading our project development workshops. We will continue our certification program and also offer more sophisticated certification in the future for mature programs.

We offer our Main Street, Small Town Main Street and Urban Main Street programs, all training and recommendations based on the four-point approach of Main Street:

• Organization. Each community must have the city, county and private sector involvement, a board of directors and a paid professional Main Street manager;

• Promotion. MMSA works with its programs on image, retail sales and advertising, and special events;

• Design. MMSA has an architect on contract and also works with the Department of Archives and History on building facades, streetscape plans for municipalities and, most particularly, encouraging upper floor, upscale downtown residential; and

• Economic restructuring. This is business retention and business recruitment. With our urban programs, we do work more closely with the residential neighborhoods that surround the commercial districts. We may promote, for instance, an overlay district that would allow mixed-use.

MBJ: Can you give us a recap of the winners at MMSA’s recent annual awards luncheon?

BM: Sure. The worthy winners include:

• Merchants of the Year: Nancy Parker and Susan Flowers of 1251 Place in Tunica, and Gail Albert, owner of A Gallery in Hattiesburg. Both are outstanding downtown businesses and owners. Also, Allen Massey for Leonard’s Department Store in Kosciusko.

• Columbus won for Best Main Street Organization in Mississippi.

• Tupelo won Best Membership Campaign and Sponsorship Program.

• Corinth won Best Festival.

• Biloxi won Best Special Event for drive-in movies downtown.

• The Most Unique Fundraiser was Pascagoula’s “Last Car Over the Bridge.” An old drawbridge was replaced with a new highway and bridge, so folks bid to be the last car over it. The mayor and aldermen won that right.

• Best Public Historic Preservation Project was the Keesler Bridge Renovation in Greenwood. The city was able to save one of the last old, swing bridges still being used.

• Best Signage was for Fondren Village by Canizaro Cawthorn Davis Architects of Jackson.

• Best Public-Private Partnership was Center Stage Auditorium in West Point.

• Best New Development was The Belhaven Market, Julia Daley.

• The Alluvian in Greenwood and Viking Range CEO Fred Carl won Best Economic Restructuring. In Albuquerque, N.M., the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation honored Fred and Viking Range in May with the 2004 National Main Street Leadership Award for Business, one of three national awards presented by the group each year to honor individuals, organizations and businesses for outstanding contributions to the revitalization of older and historic commercial districts. Fred and Viking were singled out for the restoration of 12 buildings in downtown Greenwood and for their far-reaching efforts to improve the quality of life. Viking was the first Mississippi award winner in the history of the National Trust.

• Special Service Award for a public official went to Tunica alderwoman Lynn Sturgill.

• The Spirit of Main Street Award went to Mary H. Ellis, author of “Cannonballs and Courage: The Story of Port Gibson,” for her book commemorating Port Gibson’s 200th anniversary. The book is written as if the town is telling her story.

The highest honor award — the Paul Coggin — went to Chris Chain of Columbus, not only for his years of continual volunteer service to Columbus Main Street, but also for being such a mover and a shaker in downtown housing. Also, the first-ever outstanding professional in Main Street annual award was given to and named for Al Hollingsworth.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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