Hattiesburg Downtown Revitalization Continues
By Haskel Burns
"So go downtown ... Things will be great when you're downtown ...
No finer place for sure, downtown ... Everything's waiting for you."
Petula Clark was referencing New York City in that 1964 ditty, but if Walt Denton has his way, people will soon be getting similar feelings for Hattiesburg's downtown area.
When Denton took over as executive director of the Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association in Febuary, his intention was to make Hattiesburg's downtown a premier destination — one comparable to those of bigger cities around the country.
"The bottom line is, Hattiesburg's destiny is to be the Austin (Texas) of Mississippi," he said. "The question is, how fast can we get there together? Every aspect that you can point to is an indicator of how well we're getting to that point."
A few short months into Denton's tenure, downtown isn't there quite yet. But things are indeed happening in the area, and Denton and some strong-willed downtown business owners are doing their part to put it along that path.
The 'game changer'
Downtown received a huge shot in the arm last summer, when the America and Carter buildings — collectively known as the Hub City Lofts — opened to residential tenants. With the buildings' 52 combined residential units filled, Denton said the Lofts have had a substantial impact on downtown.
"The Hub City Lofts was a game-changing project," he said. "The benefits of that are just now starting — downtown will see the benefits and the significance of that for years to come. You've got two of the most significant buildings in downtown on one block, and it's turned that block of Front Street into a power block."
Brian Carver, co-owner of Twin Forks Wine and Provisions on Hemphill Street, said his store has benefited from the addition of the Lofts.
"Absolutely, we've seen a great deal of traffic from the tenants of those buildings," he said. "I think it's a huge help, and to have that amount of people living here is really going to help downtown grow. You kind of want to shop where you live, so that's going to help the downtown retail."
Barry Herring, owner of Southern Fried Comics on Front Street, said the buildings have not only brought more customers to his business, but have livened up the area as a whole.
"Just the traffic is good for us," he said. "Downtown for a while was a little quiet, but now you have people here. It feels like a real downtown."
For Joseph Gadilhe, who moved into the Carter Building last August, the biggest draw of the Hub City Lofts is the proximity to downtown's restaurants, entertainment and businesses.
"There's a good energy downtown," said Gadilhe, who is also the lead trainer at Bodybar at the America. "You don't even feel like you're in Hattiesburg. It's been a great experience so far, and I think it will only get better."
The America and Carter buildings also help bring retail to the area, with a total of nine retail spaces, Two of the three retail spots in the America are already occupied, housing Bodybar at the America and Front Street Salon.
"When you look at trends, you look at Hub City Lofts, and it sets the bar on multiple levels," Denton said. "The thing is, we are just at the tip of the iceberg as to what a project like that is going to mean to downtown in the next five, eight, 10 years. And with that commercial space, at any moment those dominoes are going to start falling."
Falling into place
As with any venture, there is undeniably room for improvement in downtown. While Front and Pine streets remain lively, several other buildings in the area — including the recently-closed Mrs. Butta Bean restaurant on Main Street — remain empty.
But to Denton, that's not as much a sign of despair as it is a sign of opportunity.
"With any type of district in any market, you're just going to have a certain percentage of either open spaces, or restaurants that close and open," he said. "I just don't perceive that side of the equation as a negative.
"As long as we have stakeholders that are willing to put properties on the market and either lease them or get them sold, that's healthy activity, and it's going to ebb and flow. These buildings that are available, those are opportunities. But we have to be constantly, collectively running toward the same big picture."
For Diane Shepherd, who has a view of a couple of empty storefronts across the street from her Main Street Books location, those vacant spots can't fill up soon enough. Shepherd said other than the Thirsty Hippo, which relocated from Main Street to McLeod Street, and New Yokel Market, those particular storefronts haven't had occupants since she opened her store 12 years ago.
"Some of these building owners, somebody needs to put their feet to the fire and make them do something with their buildings," she said. "(The buildings) across from me are horrible. I'm working as hard as I can to keep it looking good, and they just need to be held accountable."
Tom White, HHDA president and owner of 206 Front and Bianchi's Pizzeria, said filling those spots will take some initiative on the part of new business owners.
"It's up to private enterprise, to entrepreneurs coming up with ideas and feeling like those properties are the best fit for their businesses, just like I did 12 years ago with 206," he said. "It's going to take entrepreneurs that have a vision and are ready to take a risk, which is what any start-up business is.
"And who knows, maybe some businesses from out west, or other existing businesses, will look at these (downtown) properties as good leasing options. But it would be great to get people in."
For her part, Shepherd is helping to bring retail to the area by subletting a space in her store for The Persnickety Man, a men's clothing store expected to open Aug. 1.
"It'll be fun — it'll be a completely different style from anything Hattiesburg has ever had," said The Persnickety Man owner Roberto Cancel. "And downtown just seems like the happening place. It's been up and coming, but I feel like all of us have to make an investment in downtown if we want it to succeed."
And there have been other recent developments as well. In addition to Twin Forks Wine and Provisions, which opened in January, businesses like Stitched and Chandler's Studio have joined the downtown ranks in the last several months.
More recently is the transformation of longtime downtown fixture Walnut Circle Grill. Late last month, Mike McElroy transferred ownership of the restaurant to Stuart Gates, who also owns The Depot Coffee House and Bistro.
Gates will re-open the restaurant in mid- to late-July under the name Vicki's on Walnut and initially focus on dinner service, opening around 4-4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Gates said he also plans to endorse the local music scene, with a lighter acoustic scenario during dining hours and possibly something a little more lively after dinner.
"It's been great to be a part of the downtown community with the Depot the last few years," Gates said. "We love our customer base, and it's been a great thing to be a part of.
"I have people frequently thank me for what I do, but in truth, it's the people who have been downtown for years who should receive credit — the residents, the business owners who took property risks years ago to start building the foundation."
In addition, the former Hattiesburg American building on Main Street has been purchased, and the owner is currently in negotiations with potential tenants.
As far as the empty buildings go, it seems most downtown business owners are more than welcoming to any new ventures in the neighborhood.
Abby Thaxton, owner of the Lucky Rabbit on Mobile Street, said a property across the street from her shop would make a for a good downtown nightspot.
"It's got a great outdoor space, and it would be an awesome bar," she said. "Several people have looked at it and said that would be a great idea for it."
For Herring, the first thing that comes to mind is a grocery.
"Talking to people who live downtown, it's either that, or even a good convenience store," he said. "That's what I'm hearing from people that live in these (America and Carter) buildings. Whoever does it will have a license to print money."
Fortunately, Daniel Jussely and Rob Tatum — developers of the Hub City Lofts — had that exact thing in mind for the Carter Building during renovations. Jussely said it's in the works, but it may take a little time to come to fruition.
"We've had some discussion, but we don't have anything set in stone yet," he said. "But we've been talking to someone interested in doing that."
To help lure those kinds of businesses — and with them, more residents — Denton plans to link the area with Southern Miss and William Carey University to promote the area as a premier college destination.
"Hattiesburg is the best college town in the state," Denton said when he took over as executive director. "We're going to be in lockstep with Southern Miss, we're going to be in lockstep with William Carey, and we're going to let everyone know what a dynamic college community we have here."
To do that, Denton gets downtown involved in activities such as Golden Eagle Welcome Week, which is a week-long orientation program of sorts for new Southern Miss students.
There's also the ongoing Rails-To-Trails project, which will extend the Longleaf Trace from Southern Miss to downtown and William Carey, making transit easier for students at those universities.
"That will be a significant connection when it gets online," Denton said. "We're still having conversations regarding other connectiveness — everything from potentially exploring a downtown-midtown trolley system that could complement Hub City Transit. It's just a matter of when that could happen."
The area also hosts events such as FestivalSouth, HUBFEST and the Hattiesburg Craft Beer Festival to draw the younger crowd into downtown. The most recent addition to the lineup of downtown events is Thursday Night Downtown, which was started in May.
During Thursday Night Downtown, visitors to the area can expect to find specials at participating businesses, including a wine offering from 5-7 p.m. at Click Boutique, an extended happy hour at 206 Front and brownstone's, and sales at A Gallery & Plums.
Events like that seem to be doing the trick for residents like Melanie Archer, who recently moved to Hattiesburg from out of state.
"We love living downtown," said Archer, who lives on Bay Street. "It's a great community atmosphere, very family-oriented and lots of fun activities to do. We have a small child, so it's really fun to just stroll her around and check everything out."
So where will downtown be in the next, say, five or 10 years? It may be difficult to pinpoint an exact answer on that one, but Thaxton sees nothing but good things for the future.
"Downtown is coming together nicely, she said. "A healthy downtown means a healthy city. You don't go to Savannah, Georgia, because their suburbia is amazing — you go there because of the atmosphere in the downtown scene, and our downtown is going in the right direction."
For more information
• The Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association is located at 723 N. Main St. in downtown Hattiesburg.
• For more information on downtown Hattiesburg, including an events calendar and business listings, visit www.downtownhattiesburg.com or call the HHDA at 583-4329.