Main Street Blog
<h2>Okolona: Coming Together</h2>

Okolona: Coming Together

May 2016

 

"Tell me a success story."

 

This is something I am asking every Main Street director when I visit his or her community. Why? Because anyone who is proud of their hometown has something good to talk about. And, let's admit, we all could use some positive news in our lives. Life is hard, and we certainly need to celebrate when times are good!

 

So, I found myself meeting with Perry Grubbs and Annie Gates, the Executive Director and Board President, respectively, of the Okolona Area Chamber of Commerce/Main Street. I was there to conduct a program evaluation, but what I left with was an exciting feeling that good things, some tangible, some intangible, were happening there.

 

When I drove onto Main Street, my first impression was: This street looks really nice—most of the buildings look fixed up and full, there are nice hanging flower baskets along Main Street and other beautiful landscape treatments, like the area around the roundabout with the statue. I also thought, it's a shame that as many cars pass by Okolona every day, that there is no signage to entice people to actually come in to town.

 

After talking with Perry and Annie, I soon discovered that getting traffic into Okolona has certainly been identified as a need, and there are plans in process to make these gateway signs and overall wayfinding happen. Continuing to attract new business and market existing business is a major goal for the Chamber/Main Street, along with installing these signs.

 

One business that stood out to me was Mugs on Main. This coffee shop looked contemporary and cool, a sure sign that things are happening in downtown Okolona. I found out Mugs on Main also serves up some good lunches and were awarded the Main Street Award from the Okolona Chamber/Main Street for this year.

 

After conveying my initial reactions to downtown, we got down to business.

 

We talked through the 10 criteria for state and national Main Street accreditation, and then we got to the interesting stuff. I asked Perry and Annie, "What is a recent success story here?"

 

Perry's eyes widened, and he leaned in, as if whispering a secret, "The Harlem Ambassadors."

 

Come again?

 

Perry said that one thing this small town is known for is raising quality athletes. This town of 2,500 has 10 professional athletes who call it home. So, the interest in athletics here is obvious.

 

He and Annie took turns filling me in on the exciting event that took place in February of this year.

 

The Harlem Ambassadors, a professional touring basketball team from Chicago, was recruited by the Chamber/Main Street and the Okolona school system to visit Okolona, and specifically, Okolona's students. Chamber/Main Street board member Lorene Moore pioneered the idea, and once the Board of Education approved the idea, things starting moving quickly.

 

"It was the talk of the town," Gates said.

 

Civitan members and Okolona High School Band members sold tickets to the public. The local newspaper built the community's anticipation for the event. Finally, the day arrived.

 

The Harlem Ambassadors put on an "anti-drug, anti-bullying and pull-up-your-pants" campaign, Grubbs said. And, the campaign was targeted to and heard by 600 kids with standing room only.

 

That was just the day program. That night, the Harlem Ambassadors took on the 2002 Champion Okolona High School Basketball Team. I asked who won, and Perry told me with a wink, "Well, you know the Ambassadors always win."

 

"The Harlem Ambassadors came on a Tuesday night, and my kids were still talking about it at church the following Sunday morning," Gates said.

 

"It was a religious experience," Grubbs said, "And, it happened in Okolona!"

 

The Chamber/Main Street continues to make working with Okolona schools a priority. They created programs for the high school basketball season and sold them for $1.00. All proceeds went back to the basketball program.

 

"We have got to bring people together in a positive way," Grubbs said. "We hope the city will come together in all respects."

 

The Chamber/Main Street continues to bring people together. Membership is at an all-time high of 124 members. Thirty-nine new businesses have started in the past five years. Only 12 of these have closed. For an economically-distressed town of 2,500, those results are pretty dramatic!

 

"The community is behind the Chamber/Main Street 100 percent," Gates said.

 

"We have to unite," Grubbs said. "And, that's happening!"

 

"See why we keep him around?" Gates joked. Then, Annie got serious. "What Okolona needs is to come together as one. Until we see that, we'll be a town divided. With a town this size, we all should have the same goal to bring Okolona together."

 

And that, my friends, is why I left Okolona excited. It felt a little bit like a church service. The kind where you are on your feet and clapping.

Photo: Perry Grubbs, Annie Gates and Jeannie Zieren

 

 

 

 

 


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