From her hospital bed in Birmingham, Ala., Beverly Meng watched in horror as the national news channels broadcast aerial video of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Meng, executive director of the Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA), had endured heart surgery just before Hurricane Katrina made landfall August 29, 2005, and was recovering in the cardiac intensive care unit. The week before, Gulfport had been inducted into the Mississippi Main Street Program.
“I watched my home state being battered,” she recalled. “I wept through the whole thing. I was on a ventilator for five days and couldn’t even talk about it.”
Today, MMSA is helping revitalize towns across South Mississippi damaged by the powerful category four storm. Meng is collaborating with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) to find special funding via incentives, grant money and low-interest loans.
“We turned in a wish list to MDA for HUD funds coming in, and some of that will go to downtown revitalization,” said Meng. “I’m not sure what form it’s going to take, but I know that HUD is more flexible with these dollars than they have been in the past.”
MMSA, which has helped 48 communities designated Main Street, Small Town or Urban Neighborhood by providing 3,000 new businesses, 20,000 new jobs and $1.5 billion of reinvestment in the communities they save, recently beefed up its staff.
MDA 13-year veteran Sam Agnew was added as director of program services for the Tupelo-based northern district, and Stacy Pair, former Main Street Manager in Philadelphia, began working with Gulf Coast communities on February 13 as director of program services for the southern district. After eight years with the statewide association, Bob Wilson was promoted from director of program services to deputy director.
“The only thing that limits us is the size of our staff, which now has 6.5 people, including a part-time architect,” said Meng. “MDA also helped us in another, unexpected way. The state agency recently announced to regional offices to highly encourage them to work closer with Main Street programs in their service district. That will be like bringing on additional staff and help us bring on board the eight communities on the Main Street waiting list. Although it’s been a gentleman’s agreement in the past, it had never been put in writing as part of their work plan.”
Many people don’t realize that MMSA is also helping municipalities that are not designated Main Street, Small Town or Urban Neighborhood communities. The association has about 30 member towns that have reaped the benefits of its many services, which include:
• A one-day assessment visit starting at $1,250, which includes a membership fee.
• Telephone consultation.
• Access to MMSA resource library
• Regional workshops on merchandising/promotions, fundraising, business recruitment, co-existing with discounters and more.
• Design services.
• Vision/long-range strategic planning.
• Market analysis.
• Business plan for the business district.
• Grant review and editing.
“Flora is a great example of a member town,” said Meng. “Years ago, we did a one-day assessment with a core group willing to commit and invest the time and some sweat equity into revitalizing their town. They used that assessment as their guide … and downtown Flora looks wonderful and has some very nice businesses. We want to be able to offer more member towns a working plan because we realize Main Street isn’t for anybody.”
MDA has some programs on the drawing board to offer additional services through MMSA, hinted Meng.
“We haven’t ironed out all the kinks yet,” she said. “We’ve been working with some of the CBDG (Community Block Development Grant) funding coming into the state for GO Zone communities. We may have a cap loan program, where the city could get funding for façade rehabilitation for property donated to the city. This is different from what we’ve had in the past.”
Small towns have the potential to attract shoppers by having businesses that provide extra special attention.
“Towns are able to survive against sprawl by having specialty stores and ‘outservicing’ the competition,” said Meng. “If it’s an apparel shop, the staff must know their customers so well that they always have something special going on for them. Successful retailers are differentiating themselves from competitors with extra service.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.