For more than 20 years, Chris Chain has worked to restore old buildings and revitalize downtown areas in Mississippi. It began in 1986 in his hometown, Columbus, and has spread across the state as this restoration evangelist takes his message on an ever-widening circuit.
He is immensely pleased that Columbus was recently named to the list of 2008 Twelve Distinctive Destinations by the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation. Residents and leaders in the Lowndes County city have embraced the restoration concept.
Chain recalls moving home from Louisiana in 1986 to work with his father in the construction business. “I looked at our downtown all boarded up,” he said. “With the banks and city and county government there, I thought it was the heartbeat of our town. I considered what would be the highest and best use of the properties from an appraisal standpoint.”
Without residents, Chain thought retail would not be cost effective, so he began preaching the then-shocking idea of having people live downtown to ensure a 24-hour-a-day area.
“The biggest problem was with the planning commission and city council to get residential use of some of the buildings, and some residents protested it,” he remembers. “It was a new thing and people didn’t understand it. “
But Chain persevered and had an answer for every question to bring unused space into use. “I saw this concept of living space above retail space in the French Quarter in New Orleans,” he said. “My passion is to save these old buildings; to see their value, and not just have that cookie cutter thing with buildings.”
That passion has not waned since 1986 as he touts the character of high ceilings, exposed brick, archways, wooden floors and beams inherent in many abandoned buildings.
“Mississippi is littered with old buildings and downtowns needing help,” he says. “Down the line when we’re all gone, our children will see that we were good stewards of these buildings.”
The 46-year-old preservationist cites his high school swim coach and mentor, Carl Butler, for fostering a love of history. “We were swimming champs and went all over the country. Everywhere we went, he would take us on a full history tour,” Chain says. “I got interested in history and the old houses in Columbus way back then.”
The Main Street program got on the bandwagon in Columbus and is part of the city’s success story. Chain says the buzz started happening and people wanted to live downtown. The city now boasts the largest number of downtown residences in the state with a turnover rate that is practically non existent.
“That is the key to rebuilding a downtown, people living there,” he said. “Then you get night activities and art events, and then retail comes back. Residents have transformed downtown Columbus. When people saw what could be done with the old buildings, they wanted to live there.”
As a licensed general contractor specializing in historic restoration and new construction, Chain began his own company, Renovations of Mississippi, in 1996. “I was showing people what they could do before I formed the company,” he says. “First, we clean out a building to see what we have. Then we meet with the city building department and the State Department of Archives and History. That’s the hard part — how can we make this work?”
He notes that a lot of materials in old buildings do not have UL listings for a fire rating so he must fight for a rating. “We go in and show the history and what we’re doing,” he said. “The city departments have the discretion to work with us. These old buildings have lasted. They’re tough and strong. We are not able to build them the same way today.”
Chain consults on renovations all over Mississippi, including the cities of Gulfport, Vicksburg, Macon, Jackson, Corinth, Meridian, Starkville, West Point and Brookhaven. He always makes before and after photos to illustrate what can be done. He also has extensive experience in obtaining the Historic Restoration Tax Credit for his projects.
“I’m very encouraged. When I first started, Mississippi was ranked 51st on not taking advantage of tax credits. We have gone to first,” he said. “When you take an old building, you’ve got to use every advantage.”
But Chain doesn’t look at things in the short term. “A new building might be cheaper to build, but it won’t last like these old buildings,” he says. “We now have three or four companies doing restorations. I welcome this and want more people on board. I want to be part of the team; I don’t have to do the construction.”
At this time, he is especially interested in downtown Gulfport where preservation efforts took some huge steps back with the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. He was first called to come and help eight years ago by Realtors Cliff Thomas and Claudia Keyes. He became so taken with the city that he will soon occupy a downtown apartment when not at home in his 1950s-era house in Columbus. He and his wife, Cathy, will enjoy taking in the sights with their children, Molly, Ladd and Thomas.
“Gulfport is a neat town, but it’s facing a 15-year comeback,” he said. “People will go downtown if you give them a reason to go.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.