The incandescent glow crisscrossing downtown Laurel emanates a unique history that is also as bright as the city’s future.
The city has been the financial center of Jones County since the expansion of the timber trade in the late 1890s, a trade that supported a bustling downtown and streetcars in the 1930s, strings of lights making iconic X’s above downtown.
The founding families of Laurel envisioned a city committed to the arts. Thomas Edison’s apprentice, William H. Mason, was brought to town and used Laurel’s wood pulp to develop a worldwide company, Masonite. The city's part was designed by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted's firm, and the city was home to the first high school for African Americans in Mississippi.
Much of that history was gone by the time the millennial generation came of age. Federal urban renewal policies tried to turn downtown into a pedestrian mall of sorts.
Over the last decade, Laurel's population has grown over 2 percent and momentum has poured into downtown, kick-started by the vision of a few millennial couples. It’s an energy that will be on display with the debut of the HGTV Series “Home Town” later this year.
Jim Rasberry remembers standing on a downtown street corner in 2006 while talking to a friend and thinking, "what a cool downtown we have," but there wasn’t a car or a person nearby; it was a ghost town.
“Just the other day, there was a traffic jam on Oak Street and Magnolia,” said Rasberry, who, along with his wife, Mallorie, helped found the non-profit Laurel Main Street, along with their financial services company. Laurel Main Street is a 501c3 non-profit and fully accredited by state and national Main Street organizations. It is supported through memberships, private sponsorships, fundraising, the city of Laurel, the Jones County Board of Supervisors and the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, under the leadership of Executive Director Judi Holifield since 2011.
The Rasberrys, along with friends from Ole Miss — Josh and Emily Nowell and Erin and Ben Napier — made a leap of faith to renovate downtown buildings with loft apartments above retail space around 2006. The city is now home to 30 loft apartments, with a waiting list.
Other boutique retailers like the Knight Butcher, Sweet Something, J. Parker Reclaimed and Adam Trest Home have popped up, all owned by Laurel natives in their late 20s or early 30s.
Growing up in Laurel, Adam Trest heard stories about the once-bustling downtown while being indoctrinated in the city’s commitment to the arts. The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art boasts one of the state’s finest collections and remains free to enter, thanks to the Eastman Memorial Foundation.
Trest took a love of oil and watercolor and turned it into a business. First he began selling artistic campus maps of Southern college campuses as a wholesaler, and then opened a store front in downtown Laurel eight months ago where his prints are displayed on home goods, in an old jewelry building renovated by Nowell’s Marcella Investment Group.
“It was inspiring when I came home from college in 2010 and seeing this passion from Jim, Mallorie, Erin and Ben that said, 'this is a really cool place, and we just need other people to see that,’” Trest said.
At Trest’s store, at J. Parker Reclaimed located next-door, and at a corner location that will become a restaurant serving blue-plate lunches, Nowell and his crew have worked to highlight the city’s past. Nowell describes the thrill of tearing out layers of carpet to find beautiful hardwood or hexagonal tile mosaics.
“People like us who grew up in the 1980s and '90s were captivated by the magic of (what) Laurel used to be,” Nowell said. “We can reclaim it and make it ours again.”
When the millennial generation grew up in Laurel, the city’s downtown was covered by an olive green canopy, which locals refer to with disdain as “the shed.” Spurred by federal urban renewal plans, Laurel and many cities across the country implemented plans designed to appeal to the indoor mall craze.
Beginning in 1976, $20 million was invested in urban renewal projects that fixed flooding issues and buried power lines. However, the city’s downtown was covered, Central Avenue was closed to traffic and historic buildings were torn down. Business owners abandoned the area.
“It was dark and ... the public thought people could be hiding behind the beams (of the canopy),” said former mayor Susan Vincent, whose first act as mayor in 1993 was to work to remove the covering.
Crews began tearing down the poles on a Friday, and by that Monday Vincent said “it looked like the sun had finally come to downtown.”
Vincent ended three terms as the city’s mayor in 2005, not long before the founding of Laurel Main Street, for which Vincent now serves on two boards.
“It makes me so happy to see what is happening downtown right now,” Vincent said. “Those three couples (the Rasberrys, Napiers and Nowells) have had vision and faith. People can have a negative attitude, but then a group believes and makes things happen, (and) everyone else starts believing, too.”
The unofficial headquarters for the makers movement in town is the Laurel Mercantile Co., a joint venture by the Nowells, Napiers and Rasberrys. It's a store that sells goods and wares made entirely in the United States, with as much commitment to Mississippi as possible.
The Napiers' Scotsman brand can been seen on cotton shirts, and the hope is one day to be able to track each bale of cotton from a Mississippi field all the way to a finished product. Nowell and Napier are working to create an artist alleyway, a permanent place local craftsmen can display their goods, across the street.
Sitting across from an Amtrack stop and next to Laurel’s oldest business, Lott Furniture, the Mercantile welcomes visitors from across the country. Those visits will likely increase when “Home Town” makes its debut in the Spring.
“The show is going to open America’s eyes to what we’re doing here,” Ben Napier said. “Jim started Main Street 10 years ago, and it’s exciting to see the fruits of our labor.”
Napier, who stars in the renovation show with his wife, Erin, is a celebrity walking around downtown. Laurel native and Houston, Texas, resident Jennifer Whitten stops him for a photo.
“There wasn’t much to downtown (Laurel) growing up, but now it’s so nice and it’s awesome to see my friends and talk about the show,” Whitten said.
Over the last 12 months, Mallorie Rasberry said Laurel Main Street has facilitated the sale of 16 buildings downtown, more than were sold in the previous 10 years combined. The foundation relies largely on fundraising for four yearly events. Proceeds from 2016’s Touch a Truck helped fund the return of the crisscross lights to downtown.
“It’s a 10-year process for an overnight success,” Rasberry said.