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Living downtown popular, growing trend in state’s small cities

Living downtown has become quite the rage across the country as residents opt out of the suburbs and long daily commutes to work. These new urbanites also gain the charm and character of a bygone era in their living spaces. Several small cities in Mississippi are leading the way in downtown living.

Columbus is at the head of the pack with 117 apartments — more than anywhere else — in its historic downtown area. Additionally, 23 living spaces are currently being renovated. According to Amber Murphree, manager of the city’s Main Street program, the oldest building is believed to date back to the mid-1800s. It currently houses a popular restaurant.

“In addition to residential spaces, we have a variety of businesses downtown; everything from discount stores, clothing boutiques, gourmet and Southern restaurants, florist and gift shops, financial offices, banks and churches,” she said. “The area is very nice, and it really has become quite the trend to live downtown here.”

Murphree knows about living downtown. She was reared in the area and walked to school. Recently moving back, she wanted to live in the historic district, but had a difficult time finding something available.

“The apartments are really in demand because they’re so nice,” she said. “They come in all sizes and prices — lofts, two-bedroom and executive apartments. They have hardwood floors, exposed brick, archways and high ceilings.”

Green space is available to downtown residents at the river walk with its trails and benches overlooking the Tombigbee River. “It’s a beautiful green space,” Murphree said. “People who don’t live downtown come there to walk and walk their dogs. We definitely have that advantage.”

Another popular city for downtown living is Greenwood where 24 apartments are currently available and three more are under construction in the Klein & Blumenthal Building. Main Street manager Lise Foy says at least 14 are occupied.

“There are plans with investors to develop more downtown residential space. We have a market for it here,” she said. “Downtown, we have a combination of retail, residential and services such as banks. It’s a real fun life style, and our historic downtown lends itself to it really well.”

She added that downtown Greenwood is well on its way to becoming a tourist attraction by virtue of the character of the buildings, location, selection of unique businesses and events held there. Those include the Alluvian Hotel, Viking Cooking School, Turnrow Books, and gourmet and gift shops.

John Poros, director of the Carl Small Town Center, affirmed that downtown living is a reality and is thriving in places not usually thought of for that type of living.

“People want to have contact with other people and be able to walk to see friends and shop,” he said. “I call it ‘back to the future’ because it’s the way people lived in the 30s, 40s and 50s. We’ve figured out that our grandparents knew how to live and we’re coming back to that.”

Poros, who also teaches structural engineering at Mississippi State University, said the concept has taken off all over the country. He listed several Mississippi cities as hot spots of downtown living, including Columbus, Greenwood, Corinth and Meridian. The Center is currently working with a private investor and HUD to develop five housing units in downtown Okalona.

“It’s also a green issue because there’s less driving,” he said, “and it promotes a healthier lifestyle. A lot of good things come from it.”

Not the least of those good things is preserving old buildings. “We are incredibly blessed in a way in Mississippi; a weird sort of blessing,” he said. “Our downtowns were left behind and that preserved them. That’s not true in many other areas of the country where the buildings were torn down. Many of our old buildings just needed dusting off.”

Corinth has approximately 50 downtown living spaces, and Main Street Association manager Susan Joiner said it has long waiting lists of folks wishing to rent them. She recently walked the area to survey the businesses and services available to residents.

“It was amazing,” she said. “We have an active city hall, post office, banks, restaurants, coffee shops, women’s apparel, garden shop, service stations, auto repair, lawyers and doctors downtown. And, you can rent movies, buy makeup and get most anything you need there.”

The 16-block historic district is still the hub of the city and is home to a number of buildings that have been preserved. Part of that is because Corinth had the good fortune to avoid destruction by fires, wars and natural disasters, Joiner said.

“We’re happy with the charm and beauty of our downtown,” she said. “We have a mix of people of all ages living there. One building owner recently put in an elevator so the stairs won’t limit anyone from living there.”

Corinth, too, is blessed with a large green space available for public use downtown. All of the cities where downtown living is established have a variety of businesses. None, however, has a full-service grocery store, a type of business crucial to every day life. Some, such as Corinth, have dollar stores that carry some food items, including milk and bread.

“You can buy a lot of food at the dollar stores,” Joiner said, “and some of the restaurants deliver. The full grocery stores are not far away, and that is the only place a downtown resident in Corinth has to drive.”

Poros said grocery stores are a challenge for downtown living. “It’s a matter of getting a critical mass,” he said. “They will come as more people live there. That seems to be the final thing needed.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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