By LYNN LOFTONCleveland, Water Valley, Tupelo, Columbus, Bay St. Louis, Natchez, Vicksburg, Ocean Springs — what do these Mississippi cities have in common?
These are some of the municipalities that are good examples of the Main Street concept of placemaking. Public spaces in these towns have a real sense of place. They are designed to attract and serve people, improve quality of life and be economically competitive.
Main Street Mississippi Executive Director Bob Wilson recently made a presentation on placemaking and community revitalization at a national conference in Washington, D.C., and is a big cheerleader for this movement. “I was blown away by being included and to be there with all those decision makers,” he said. “It was a holistic approach to development.”
He was one of 40 leaders invited to participate, and credits the state’s success with this movement for the invitation. Funding agencies represented included the National Association of Realtors, the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. Funding and how to take advantage of best practices were among the topics discussed.
“As Mississippi professionals deal with preserving historic buildings and assets to make our communities better, we all have more pride in our public spaces, including the streets, green spaces and everything around,” Wilson said.
His definition of placemaking is: planning, design and management of public spaces by asking who’s using them, what could be fun to do there, how can we make it a cooler place to be, where will people sit, and are there opportunities for vendors and food trucks? “This is happening on a large scale in the United States,” he said. “For instance, millennials decide where they want to be, then they go there and find a job or start a business. These kinds of places attract young professionals and creative and technology savvy people. With placemaking you create a place people want to be; it’s not the traditional economic development of creating jobs first.”
Ocean Springs has long been a leader in creating exciting public spaces where people want to be. “Our town is a destination as a result of our Main Street program and our recent recognition as a Great American Main Street,” said Margaret Miller, executive director of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce-Main Street-Tourism Bureau. “It’s a destination to live, to work and to visit, giving everyone and every business the opportunity to thrive economically and enjoy a quality of life the world is looking for now and in the next generation.”
Wilson points out that 51 of the state’s 291 cities have Main Street programs. “We still have some quality of life deserts in the state. Others could benefit but may not have the capacity for a full-blown program. Still, they could do some things to create places people want to go,” he said. “It’s not just manufacturing jobs anymore; it’s tourism, shopping and where people want to invest and raise their children, where they feel safe and secure and have a good educational system.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, charrettes or brainstorming, were held along the Coast to plan creative ways of rebuilding. “It was wildly successful and we have done it for other places in the state,” Wilson said. “We’re very excited about it.”
Tupelo was an early state leader in this movement when it received a grant to develop Fairpark and extend the connection between downtown and Elvis Presley’s birthplace. Fair Park incorporates businesses, restaurants, entertainment, retail shops and hotels.
“Cleveland has a lot going on too and has a lot of young people who love that community and want to stay there,” Wilson said. “Water Valley is another town that’s attracting lots of young people and university professors. People get together in these towns and think creatively.”
Wilson also praises Columbus for starting the downtown residential movement in Mississippi. “Bay St. Louis, Ocean Springs, Natchez, Vicksburg and Hattiesburg are all doing a great job,” he said. “I think Gulfport is the sleeping giant on the Coast with what they’re doing with Fishbone Alley.”
On a national scale, Wilson cites Detroit as a good example of thinking outside the box with placemaking. “We can do all the things they’re doing, and we include those things in our quarterly training,” he said. “Placemaking is bipartisan; it’s about relationships and it’s everybody’s.”