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Downtown Water Valley anticipates boost from Main Street

On August 30, the Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA) celebrated the addition of its 52nd community, and that community believes its MMSA membership will bring major, positive changes to its unique downtown area.

The formal induction ceremony was held at the Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Water Valley, which enters the MMSA’s Small Towns Program. It was a fitting venue for the North Mississippi city whose character and downtown was shaped by the coming of the “iron horse.”

“We believe joining the Main Street program will mean revitalization to our downtown district,” says Jessie Gurner, Water Valley Main Street manager. “We are expecting it to bring more of the good things that are already here.”

Changing times

Like many of Mississippi’s historic communities, civic leaders planned for the city’s center to be built around a town square. However, the coming of the railroad changed that vision, and today gives the Yalobusha County community a unique downtown configuration.

Rather than a square-type layout with depth, Water Valley’s downtown district is linear, shaped to conform to the rail line. Thus, the city’s downtown is unusually long and large for a town of its size.

History was kind to Water Valley’s downtown is another aspect. In the 1970s in an effort to compete against the growing number of malls and shopping centers located away from “Main Street,” many downtowns attempted to modernize their central districts, adding awnings and removing old facades. And many of those communities now lament that move, and have had to spend significant dollars to replace the original look and character.

Water Valley is not one of them. Its central district remains relatively untouched and largely retains its historic look and feel.

That is not to say the downtown district has not been totally unscathed by time. The Mississippi 7 bypass caused an exodus of some business. And according to Gurner, the city’s downtown suffered a series of fires that claimed many of its historic buildings.

Thus, some of the buildings that do remain are unoccupied. And while the structures are historic, which is excellent for atmosphere and feel, many lack eye-appeal and are in need of renovation. That is why local leaders and citizens are so enthused by the MMSA membership.

Optimism surges

Many in the community feel that a renovated downtown means a revitalized local economy, and see the MMSA membership as the vehicle for that needed change. Enthusiasm and optimism abound amongst business owners and local leaders.

One of those is Bobby Turnage., one of downtown Water Valley’s most venerable businesses is Turnage Drug Store. Opened in 1905, Bobby Turnage represents the fourth generation of his family to operate the business.

“I’m really hoping this association brings new business to the area,” he says. “I am looking for an increase in traffic and shoppers from out of town.”

Another Water Valley downtown mainstay is the Mechanics Bank, which has operated from the same location since 1892. Obviously, the financial institution is hopeful about a downtown renaissance for a number of reasons.

“There is no doubt that a revitalized downtown is great for the bank,” says Eddie Ray, president and CEO of Mechanics Bank. “A strong downtown in integral to the economic success of any town. But this is good for the community as a whole. Hopefully, more landowners will make improvements to the appearance of their properties, and the area will have the look of progress.”

The MMSA membership is already showing a tangible, positive effect of the city’s central district. The Water Valley Main Street Program is preparing to move into a structure that at one time was a bank before serving as City Hall. Gurner says her group is hoping to move in by October 1.

Gurner points to the numbers that turned out to celebrate the MMSA membership at the ceremony and the folks who have offered to get involved. The ceremony drew not only downtown business people, but also citizens and leaders from across the city and county. Gurner estimated 75 were on hand at the celebration. And some 60 people are serving on committees, and underwent the obligatory two-day MMSA training program, which was hosted by Mechanics Bank.

Gurner is a Water Valley girl who married a Water Valley boy. She and her husband, Jack Gurner, once left Water Valley for Memphis, where Jack worked for FedEx as a photographer and Jessie held various positions with marketing companies. They grew homesick, however, and returned to Water Valley and opened a photo studio in the central district.

Jack now heads up the Casey Jones Railroad Museum and, though unofficial, is the town historian, a mantle he inherited from his late uncle, Bruce Gurner.

Already quit active in local affairs, when a search for a director got underway, Jessie gladly offered her services as Water Valley Main Street program manager. To her, it is a labor of love.

“We love Water Valley,” she says, “and we believe in it. I am confident that this program will provide huge benefits to this town.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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