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Columbus’ star shines bright after national award

People come from far and wide to stay and shop in Columbus.

People come from far and wide to stay and shop in Columbus.

Tennessee Williams’ hometown one of just five in country to receive Great American Main Street Award

Jan Miller was speechless.

For those who know the personable and sometimes chatty director of program services for the Mississippi Main Street Association, that might be hard to believe.

But after being privately notified two months ago that Columbus had been named one of five cities to receive the coveted 2010 Great American Main Street Award by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Miller was beside herself with joy, and, uncharacteristically, without words.

“I just really didn’t know what to say when the phone call came that we had won,” she said. “We were in Ocean Springs for managers training and I immediately found (Main Street Mississippi CEO) Bob Wilson. I could barely get the words out.

“Now the world knows that Columbus, Miss., is a shining star.”

The National Trust Main Street Center’s annual GAMSA winners are recognized for their exceptional accomplishments in revitalizing the nation’s historic downtown commercial districts.

“We are so proud of the (Main Street Columbus) board of directors and staff,” Wilson said in a statement.  “This is so good for Mississippi and Columbus.”

The award, officially announced May 4 in Oklahoma City, Okla., was especially gratifying to Miller, who has been a Columbus resident for 33 years and a former Main Street Columbus manager.

As a 20-year old Mississippi University for Women student in the 1970s, she remembers downtown Columbus consisting of a Fred’s, Crosley’s Men’s Clothing, some seedy check-cashing stores and lots of steel bars on store windows.

“To watch this evolve before my eyes has been incredible,” she said.  “This is the biggest honor Columbus has ever received.  We now have 169 downtown businesses and an unoccupied rate of only 11 percent.  I know how hard people have worked since the mid-1980s to make this happen.”

Miller says the transformation of the downtown area has presented at least one conundrum.

“Never before has Columbus had a parking problem downtown,” she said.  “But we have one now.”

It is a “problem” that Miller and all of the downtown Columbus merchants do not mind at all.

‘Anything is possible’

Auburn’s Bo Jackson won college football’s Heismen Trophy.  Heavy metal band Motley Crue played to sold-out arenas.  “Back to the Future” was the highest-grossing motion picture.

The year was 1985.

The Columbus Main Street program kicked off that August, at a joint meeting with Downtown Columbus Unlimited.

The late Paul Coggin served as Main Street’s first manager.

After Coggin’s untimely death in 1991, the process of merging Main Street and DCU began, and in July 1992, Main Street Columbus became a reality.

As a child, current Main Street Columbus manager Amber Murphree Brislin lived three blocks from the city’s downtown.  She returned to her hometown three years ago after stops in Michigan and South Florida.

“Coming in as manager, I knew I had some big shoes to fill.  The integrity of the organization for the past 25 years has been outstanding,” she said.  “The entire community has been involved and this award will take us to the next level. We have other projects on the horizon.”

Those would include a multi-million-dollar expansion of the old River Bridge, which connects with the city’s sparkling Riverwalk, as well as the construction of a new Sportsplex, which will be built adjacent to the Riverwalk and Farmer’s Market.

Brislin says she’s not the first of her childhood friends to move back to their hometown after living out-of-state.

“There’s a whole new generation that’s working to keep what we have here going,” she said.  “Twenty-five years ago, people said it was crazy to revitalize downtown Columbus.  My advice to other Mississippi cities that want to do the same is that anything is possible.”

‘Build it and they will come’

Chris Chain relishes that he grew up in Columbus and that he’s been a part of the downtown revitalization.

In 1996, he launched the Market Street Festival, a downtown street event featuring over 300 vendors that draws upwards of 40,000 visitors annually in May.

Perhaps more importantly, Chain and his renovations company helped ignite the surge of development in the heart of his hometown.

Renovations of Mississippi Inc. has built and rehabbed many of the downtown apartments, now numbering 148.  They are all filled and there is an occupancy waiting list.

After graduating from Florida State, Chain came home to see a downtown in need of a makeover.

“I didn’t like what I saw after college. I believed Columbus needed to bring awareness to downtown, so we started Market Street Festival.  Then, I thought we needed to renovate the ‘upstairs’ of our downtown, so we started doing apartments,” he said.  “Two turned into 10, which turned into 50, which turned into over 140.”

Chain points towards the cooperation of the citizenry, from the local banks to the garden clubs, for making Columbus what it’s become today.

“There are so many groups that have made this award possible,” he said.  “Sometimes a lot of people here don’t realize that other communities struggle.  Here, it’s been a community effort and volunteerism is the key to success.”

‘Commitment and time’

Columbus architect Sam Kaye served on the first steering committee of the city’s Main Street program in 1985.  More importantly, he made downtown Columbus home to his business, LPK Architects, a few years earlier.

“It’s a real honor for Columbus and I’d say the people of this town have worked long and hard for this recognition,” Kaye said.  “Personally, I’m very proud of the award for the city because my office has been downtown since 1981.”

Though the “old” downtown Columbus has been described by some as abandoned, Kaye says that’s not quite factual.

“It wasn’t as bad as some say but downtown did need a lot of renovation,” he said.  “We also needed a lot of coordination and Main Street Columbus has been the focal point of that coordination.”

The soft-spoken Kaye says the prospering of downtown Columbus is owed to partnerships.

“Public and private cooperation is what’s required and we’ve had that from both sides,” he said. “Coming back from where downtown was didn’t happen overnight.  My advice to other cities in Mississippi that want to see their downtown become successful would be to be patient — but it takes time and commitment.”

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