Despite having one of the leanest budgets and only a mid-sized inventory by comparison to other states, Mississippi Main Street Association (MSMA) boasts the nation’s leading statistics.
“For years, we told the story of Main Street Associations until we were blue in the face,” said Beverly Meng, executive director of MSMA since 1983. “Now it’s cool to be in downtown, and our more mature programs are starting to soar. Our problem is that we can’t keep up with the demand for the services.”
Based on a May 31 cumulative report since the program was established in 1980, Biloxi has seen the most new jobs created (5,365) and the most private investment ($665.5 million). Meridian has seen the largest jump in the creation of new businesses (339) and buildings improved (296). Tupelo reported the largest public investment ($41.5 million).
Columbus has added 107 downtown residential or upper floor apartments, and Corinth has seen the most tax credit projects (10).
“These towns are all finding their market niche,” said Meng. “Biloxi has been fortunate that Beau Rivage is in its downtown Main Street district. They’ve helped tremendously both financially and by serving on boards and chairing committees. The casinos have helped promote the preservation and the restoration of their downtown.”
When Eurocopter representatives toured Columbus for the first time, business leaders Charleigh Ford and Nick Ardillo escorted them downtown and “those folks were so impressed with the beauty of the area and the pride in the community, they wanted to see more,” said Meng. “Their Main Street association worked very hard to revitalize the area, and they now have gorgeous downtown apartments. Columbus has set the bar in Mississippi on upper-floor housing.”
In downtown Meridian, Mississippi State University continues to spearhead the $34-million renovation of the Grand Opera House and the adjacent Marks-Rothenberg Building into the Riley Education & Performing Arts Center. The activity has helped spur the pending redevelopment of the Three Foot Building; the Rosenbaum Building, circa 1892, was renovated and reopened in 2001 with 14 condominiums and street level retail stores.
“Meridian is just now making the turn,” said Meng. “So many of their buildings left standing for so many years are finally being rehabbed. They’re seeing the influx of new upper floor housing and great new businesses.”
MSMA was spared a budget cut for the new fiscal year, even though the Mississippi Development Authority received an across-the-board 5% cut. The $300,000 annual budget covers operational and marketing expenses for managing 46 Main Street associations and providing consultation services to member affiliates.
To meet the growing demand for its services, MSMA is in the middle of a capital fundraising campaign from the private sector and is halfway to its $2.2- million goal.
“Our staff is the same size as when we had 16 members and we’re stretched to the max,” said Meng. “We’re hoping to add staff to give more assistance to the existing programs and to bring on the 15 to 20 new ones that are on our waiting list. This year, we’re hoping to implement our first countywide program in Pontotoc County. All of this activity is timely because Main Street dovetails into the new Momentum Mississippi program by helping create competitive communities businesses want to locate in. We’re on the cusp of some really exciting things.”
This year, MSMA plans to host more regional meetings across the state so local volunteers and board members can become more involved. As funding allows, the association will host more sessions with nationally known speakers, produce a marketing video on DVD to tell the Main Street story, and enhance the communication network between Main Street managers.
“The greatest challenge facing Mississippi Main Street communities is getting together the right mix of people to serve on local volunteer boards and committees, combining worker bees with wisdom and access to money and having on board fewer people who only want their name on it for résumé-building,” said Meng. “Main Street has to be so volunteer-intensive.”
More county participation in Main Street programs would be very beneficial, said Meng.
“Probably half of our programs have trouble getting the county to give money to the Main Street program,” she said. “The ones that do realize the county is only as strong as the municipalities within them.”
The popularity of Richard Florida’s books chronicling the rise and the flight of the creative class and Jack Schultz’s Boomtown USA phenomenon continue to spark interest in small town America.
“MDA director Leland Speed is forever quoting and touting those books,” said Meng. “Probably the best thing that has happened for our program statewide has been having him at MDA because he loves and understands Mississippi. I didn’t know anybody could preach the gospel better than me, but I believe he’s done that.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.