By Becky Gillette
Small businesses are a large part of what makes Main Street communities special, said Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA) State Coordinator Thomas Gregory.
“Many times, these local businesses are also tourist destinations that have become icons in their hometowns,” Gregory said. “The MMSA works with our local communities to attract, support, and retain unique small businesses as part of our downtown economic development strategy.”
MMSA is celebrating 35 years as the downtown economic development organization for the state.
“We still do what we have always done, help start and sustain Main Street programs in our historic business districts throughout the state,” said Jeannie W. Zieren, director of marketing and communications, MMSA. “But the approach has been refreshed. We revitalize downtowns based on the Main Street approach of organization, design, promotion and economic vitality, but we make sure the work plans that shape the work that is done are based on what the local market can support and what the community desires.”
There is no cookie cutter plan to develop a downtown. Zieren said you must know your community and build on what is authentic, true and special, and then focus on attracting people – whether it is recruiting a new business or attracting recent college grads or retirees to live there.
“Main Street is about quality of life and everything we do is to preserve what matters (the historic fabric of the community) and promote what makes your hometown a special place to live, work and play,” she said. “Mississippi is rich in history and culture, and every town and city is special and has its own story to tell. We try to help our communities do just that.”
MMSA is a non-profit with a small staff, so they lean on other statewide partners in economic development and preservation to help get the job done.
“With the support of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and many private investors, we are able to stretch our dollars and use them wisely,” Zieren said. “Main Street is the most effective economic development program in Mississippi.”
Since they began recording reinvestment statistics in the early ‘90s, Main Street communities have generated 42,791 jobs, 7,810 businesses, 1,320 business expansions, 3,391 building rehabs, 3,286 downtown living spaces, $1.3 billion in public investment and $4.1 billion dollars in private investment.
MMSA assists local programs with the tools and knowledge to be able to promote the local small businesses in their downtowns.
“One of the first things we encourage a new Main Street director to do is ‘walk the street’ and meet all of their merchants and get to know them,” Zieren said. “Many of our programs have regular meetings with their merchants. MMSA assists the local program in a lot of ways whether through hosting a small business development workshop, hiring a consultant to help an individual business with a specific need (like having an online presence), offering mini-grants for building improvements or business assistance, and promoting local businesses through retail events like open houses and sidewalk sales.”
For the last several years, Main Street America has partnered with American Express’ Small Business Saturday, which is the special sale on the Saturday following Thanksgiving that promotes shopping small.
“Our Main Street programs sign up and receive special promotional items and digital marketing tools to promote the day,” Zieren said. “Small Business Saturday has been very successful in Mississippi and across the U.S.”
Zieren said they see the same factors across successful communities: a strong work force, good schools and health care, and strong local leadership.
“Main Street is truly grassroots, so any town of any size can start a Main Street program as long as there are people who care,” she said. “It might just be starting to clean up your streets, pick up litter, plant flowers and put something artistic in the window of an empty storefront. The Main Street approach is long-term and incremental so even big, impressive programs like Tupelo and Ocean Springs have been taking baby steps for more than 30 years. New programs have to remember that. There are no overnight success stories.”
Some of the successes include MMSA’s resource team creating façade master plans for Coast communities after Katrina, Columbus and Vicksburg’s upper floor housing (each have more than 300 downtown living spaces), Greenwood’s Rehabit program that is recruiting new retail opportunities in downtown, Tupelo’s Fairpark District, Aberdeen’s Depot restoration, Laurel’s downtown lighting project, and the Fortification Street revamp in the Greater Belhaven neighborhood.
“Our success stories revolve around fixing historic buildings and people doing something with them,” she said. “It’s a domino effect —when one property owner decides to fix up their building, others follow.”
Main Street Clinton, which began in 2007, has used a variety of events and beautification projects to draw residents and visitors to Olde Towne.
“A beautifully quaint downtown with charming brick streets, Olde Towne had only a handful of businesses just twelve years ago,” said Anna Boyd Hawks, assistant director, Main Street Clinton. “By making Olde Towne the destination for community events, Main Street sought to further establish beautiful Olde Towne as the heart of the Clinton community. The Olde Towne Markets are large craft festivals that bring thousands of people downtown four times a year. Crafts by local vendors include everything from original paintings to jewelry, woodworking, and pottery. Downtown merchants cite these market days as some of their best all year. The weekly Fresh at Five Farmers Markets throughout the summer are a community favorite.”
The goal of having more events downtown is two-fold: to generate more traffic in Olde Towne and to showcase Clinton’s historic downtown.
“That traffic supports our current merchants and makes the area attractive for new businesses,” Hawks said. “Beautification projects, too, generate traffic and showcase the uniqueness of Clinton. Main Street has worked with local artists to install two murals downtown and one in the Boulevard Business District.”
A city that has found success with a Main Street program is Baldwyn, population 3,300, in northeast Mississippi. The once thriving downtime started dying after the development of the Highway 45 bypass.
“Local businesses suffered and slowly generations of building owners closed their doors leaving several properties abandoned for years,” said Lori Tucker, director, Baldwyn Main Street Chamber. “Our historic downtown was basically ‘flat line–no heartbeat’ as many downtowns throughout the South. However, Mississippi Main Street program along with other organizations, like Mississippi Department of Transportation, MDA, Mississippi Department of Archives & History and the National Park Service, have given us the tools and instruction on how to preserve the historic charm of downtown buildings and landmarks. Our historic six block downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and qualifies for federal and state tax credits for downtown investors.”
These, along with other incentives such as local tax abatements, façade grants, etc., have encouraged building owners to invest and rehab downtown properties. Since 2008, the Baldwyn Main Street Chamber organization has seen seven historic tax credit projects, 12 local tax abatements, 26 new businesses, 37 façade grants and 263 building permits, and more than 45 new jobs downtown. There has been about $600,000 in public investment and private investments of more than $2.9 million.
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