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Why are these Southern downtowns seeing a rebirth?

 

Sarah Fowler and Justin Vicory, Mississippi Clarion Ledger

 
 

In downtowns across the South, residents and developers are coming together to change the landscape of their communities. From small towns to booming metropolises, downtowns are seeing a rebirth. But why? And maybe more importantly, how?

 

The series:downtown.clarionledger.com

Memphis

Although significantly larger in population than many Southern cities, Memphis with its developments often foreshadows overall trends in the South.

Memphis is rapidly expanding its downtown living space. It was recently named by Forbes as one of the top 15 cities in the country for emerging downtowns.

Large companies such as ServiceMaster have relocated to the downtown area, bringing more than 1,500 jobs with them, and the city is in overhaul mode trying to accommodate the influx of workers and residents, said Jennifer Oswalt, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

“One of the things these companies are asking for is more residential space downtown for these workers, and we can’t build hotels, or residential space quickly enough,” Oswalt said.

 

It begins with highlighting the indigenous arts and culture of the city's neighborhoods through art and music festivals. It's a strategy that cities both large and small in Mississippi can benefit from, says retired newspaper editor and reporter Mac Gordon.

 

"If you're trying to revitalize the downtown, it must include the arts in some fashion or it'll not work. We in Mississippi can do the arts, and they will come to see it if you build it," Gordon said. 

 

Memphis applied this philosophy to its hip South Main neighborhood, an Arts District with converted 1900s warehouses now home to bars, pubs, restaurants and vintage shops, and also the Edge neighborhood, which converted industrial buildings to residential and commercial spaces and focused on walkability with streetscape and crosswalk beautification efforts.

"There’s a strong effort to tell the tale of the neighborhood, to build a narrative. That attracts visitors but also those who already live here,” Oswalt said.

"We all want Memphis to grow but to grow in an authentic way," she said. 

 

Baton Rouge

 

In many ways, Baton Rouge is the gold standard for what can be done to revitalize the downtown area, provided a comprehensive, long-term plan is in place.

The city has attracted more than $2.4 billion in investments over the last 20 years, said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the city's Downtown Development District.

The city is also notable for its quick comparisons to Jackson. Both are capital cities, where the state’s Legislature is encompassed in the downtown area.

In Baton Rouge’s case, the city has merged several state offices into the downtown area. This has increased its population and its commerce, as workers relocated in many circumstances.

 

Like Jackson, Baton Rouge has an eye toward luring residents downtown.

Two development projects now underway would bring in a total 250 residential units in the Central Business District alone. The city is also poised to bring in its seventh hotel, a full-service grocery, and a bike-sharing program to go along with the addition of bicycle paths downtown. These efforts are accompanied by an emphasis on beautifying the city's green space. 

 

Additionally, restaurants and services have sprung up along with the car-sharing service Zipcar, which gives workers and residents the chance to rent cars by the hour and day.

“I firmly believe it's important to present stability and predictably. We want the private sector to have the confidence, from the financing to the risk takers, and we are able to show them a before and after picture of Baton Rouge," Rhorer said.

 

Montgomery

 

Montgomery, with a comparable population and demographics of Jackson, has succeeded in many areas where Jackson has failed.

 

Through a public-private partnership, the city brought in minor league baseball team the Montgomery Biscuits and built Riverwalk Stadium downtown. (In Mississippi, Pearl gained the Mississippi Braves and Trustmark Park.) The nearby Riverwalk, which has an amphitheater, increased Montgomery’s traffic flow almost overnight. Efforts are now underway to extend the Riverwalk to the east, said Jocelyn Zangot, Montgomery's urban planner.

 

Also close by, the city has put energy into beautifying and manicuring a stretch of downtown property known as “The Alley,” where visitors can enjoy bars and the “farm to table” Central Restaurant. 

 

Elsewhere, Montgomery continues to bring in hotels to accommodate additional traffic to the downtown area and transformed its old civic center into a modern convention center with the 342-room Renaissance Hotel and Spa to host convention visitors.  

 

Now that the city has had success drawing residents to the downtown area by bringing in a "mixed-range" of market-priced apartments and lofts, Zangot said it's expanding its scope from the Riverwalk to once flourishing inner-city neighborhoods. 

 

"Getting it back to life has been a fundamental focus, a 20-year process," Zangot said of Montgomery's downtown revitalization effort. "We want to have entertainment, maybe not 24/7, but have an after-work life flowing again. That definitely requires people living downtown and having events, programming for them," Zangot said.  

 

Small town, Mississippi

 

Jan Miller, executive director of the Mississippi Main Street Association, said downtowns across Mississippi are growing to meet increasing demand.

 

She referenced the smaller towns of Columbus, Clinton, Tupelo and Water Valley. 

 

Tupelo has a zero percent vacancy rate of downtown businesses while the college town of Clinton has seen an increase in foot traffic downtown since it added a locally owned coffee shop. Antique shops, a bookstore and downtown housing soon popped up as well. 

 

"That little community has grown," said Miller of Clinton.

 

"It's big and the downtown has thrived since they focused on putting good, solid entrepreneurial businesses into those spaces and really figured out who they were and what they were doing."

 

Water Valley has seen a revival almost overnight, Miller said. Folks who wanted to live near Oxford but were feeling a strain at the cost of living began moving into the bedroom community. One by one, businesses began popping up downtown, she said, and now, the main drag is home to a brewery, a hardware store and a drug store. It still has the classic feel of a downtown but is also a flourishing art scene. 

 

Columbus, she said, is an example of what can happen when developers provide a selection of downtown living space. To date, the city of 24,500 has 175 apartments downtown, which is huge for the area, Miller said. 

 

The apartments, combined with restaurants and a bakery, retail spaces, an art gallery, a spa and law offices, have all contributed to a thriving downtown scene.

 

"Columbus has been a good example of bringing people downtown, having events, making things happen," she said. 

 

Barbara Bigelow, executive director of Main Street Columbus, said the downtown apartments have largely contributed to the city's viability. In addition to retail and restaurant options, downtown residents are within walking distance of a YMCA, a riverwalk, soccer complex and a farmer's market. 

 

"In this day, people are looking for walkability and convenience and these are both key to downtown living," Bigelow said. 

 

If smaller towns have seen a rebirth of their downtowns, Miller is confident Jackson, the largest city in the state, will have the same success. Transformations can take time, she said, but noted Downtown Jackson Partners has taken the steps to have all of the necessary things — "design, promotion, economic vitality and organization" — in place.

 

"Once we get those businesses in (downtown), we work really hard to help them stay healthy and people start to realize that downtown is a safe place," she said. "There are so many communities out there that have proven over and over that that can be done. 

 

"We talk about the heart of the community, well, Jackson is the heart of the state. When we go through this revitalization of our No. 1 city in the state, it will affect everything that we do. It starts right there in Jackson."

 

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Ocean Springs, a town with a reputation as an “arts community” has several art galleries and was hometown to the late Walter Inglis Anderson, a nationally renowned painter and muralist.

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