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Mississippi Main Street: More than just economic development

Downtown Gulfport

Downtown Gulfport

By NASH NUNNERY

Finding a small town in Mississippi might be akin to bees discovering honey – it’s not hard to do. Many of those communities have distinctive downtown thoroughfares, chock full of awe-inspiring historical architecture, eclectic businesses and hometown pride. Time seems to have forgotten others.

And a select few are Mississippi Main Street Association-certified.

For the uninitiated, MMSA is a comprehensive revitalization program that promotes the historic and economic revitalization of traditional business districts in the state. According to the National Main Street Center website, the movement collectively is the nation’s leading voice for preservation-based economic development and community revitalization.

With less than a year on the job, MMSA executive director and state coordinator Stacy Pair said her first few months have been rewarding but not without challenges.

“We’ve made a few organizational changes making us a leaner, meaner machine,” she said. “Communicating with stakeholders and boards about the needs in our communities, and convening a focus group with Main Street directors across the state has been fruitful.

“Jan Miller (director of field services) and Jeannie Zieren (director of training and information services) have been outstanding in helping craft a great strategic plan.”

Mississippi Main Street’s impact is felt throughout the state. A few examples:

• Since 2010, 32 new businesses have opened in Gulfport’s downtown district

• Tourism spending in Starkville/Oktibbeha County increased from $74 million in 2011 to $86 million in 2014

• Prior to becoming a Main Street program, Pascagoula had 11 vacant buildings downtown. Today, the area known as Anchor Square features 13 retailers and two office buildings

Though Pair would like to add to the list of 52 Mississippi communities that are currently Main Street certified, she’s in no rush – the intent is quality over quantity.

“Over the last few weeks, there have been five other communities contact us for consideration of certification,” Pair said. “I don’t want to put a number on it as far as having a certain number of cities (certified) as a goal for the end of the year.”

The certification process takes about a year and can be quite demanding. MSM staff members collaborate with interested cities and towns, making sure they have a sustainable budget and proper training. A selection panel judges the process and eventually decides whether a community is ready for certification.

“It can be a long and tedious process,” said Pair. “We don’t want to set them up for failure. Mississippi Main Street takes a comprehensive approach – we want those cities to be ready.”

The cost of certification is $10,000 for the first year and tapers down to $2,000 annually after the fourth year. Designated Main Street communities also receive an approximated value of $25,000 in technical assistance during the first year alone. Since 1993, MMSA has provided more than $4 billion in public and private re-investment.

Saltillo is the latest Mississippi city to be declared Main Street certified. The small community near Tupelo became the 52nd member of the Mississippi Main Street Association in March. Additionally, Saltillo joins a network of some 1,800 Main Street members across the nation.

Mayor Rex Smith said that becoming a certified Main Street community will unite his town of 4,500.

“Folks here talk about ‘old’ Saltillo and ‘new’ Saltillo,” he said. “That bothers me. I want it to be one Saltillo. We’re going to work hard to make things happen.”

Pair believes the important role that historical preservation plays in the Main Street program sometimes gets lost.

“Main Street is one of the best economic development engines out there,” she said. “But it’s really about historical preservation. Our partnerships with Mississippi Heritage Trust and the National Trust for Historical Preservation are invaluable. History and a sense of place bonds communities, from the garden club ladies to city officials.”

Prior to becoming executive director, Pair served as MMSA’s Southern District director, working with 21 certified Main Street associations from Jackson to Gulfport. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she served as chair of former governor Haley Barbour’s Mississippi Gulf Coast Preservation Task Force.

“Helping restore our Gulf Coast’s historic districts hit so hard by Katrina was wonderfully satisfying,” Pair said. “I hope to focus on in-the-field services and work closely with our Main Street directors, investors and partners to identify needs in our communities all across the state.

“We are all on the same page and working as a team.”

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