Down­town Come­back event a big hit

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL - Staff re­ports

Ap­prox­i­mately 325 miles South­west of Polk County lies the town of Lau­rel, Mis­sis­sippi in ru­ral Jones County. City streets are flanked with his­toric build­ings dat­ing back to the early 1900’s while strung lights glow over­head.

Filled with a butcher shop, mer­can­tile, gal­leries, fur­ni­ture stores and even a cookie dough store, the streets of Lau­rel are com­ing alive.

Just over a decade ago the scene was very dif­fer­ent, an empty down­town with va­cant build­ings sat suc­cumb­ing to the pass­ing years. How­ever, in the early 2000’s three new­ly­wed cou­ples fresh out of col­lege, the Ras­ber­rys, Now­ells and Napiers, made a de­ci­sion to re­turn down­town Lau­rel to her glory days and re­store her they did.

Fast-for­ward to 2018 and the three fam­i­lies have seen vast growth in their once aban­doned down­town.

In 2007 the group of friends estab­lished the Lau­rel Main Street pro­gram adding 30 new busi­nesses, over $40 mil­lion in pri­vate in­vest­ment to date, and net over 250 new jobs. Down­town Lau­rel is alive again bustling with ac­tiv­ity.

From new fam­i­lies to life-long res­i­dents the town gath­ers to­gether in the down­town district for movie nights, chili cook-offs, hol­i­day events and more.

Throw in their HGTV show, “Home Town,” and there is no doubt the trio of cou­ples have been wildly suc­cess­ful, how­ever they are quick to point out that the show didn’t make the town, rather the town made the show.

An HGTV fan, Polk County Cham­ber of Com­merce Ex­ec­u­tive Blair El­rod made the trek to Lau­rel in July 2017 to see the town and his­toric charm she ad­mired on the show.

“I vis­ited Lau­rel prior to join­ing the Cham­ber as the Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor be­cause I was drawn to the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween our down­town dis­tricts and Lau­rel,” El­rod said. “I wanted to see for my­self what their town looked and felt like to grasp if I could some­how bring that back to Polk County.”

El­rod and her hus­band made the 12 hour round trip in one day, vow­ing that they would re­turn.

“We loved the his­toric down­town feel of Lau­rel. Each build­ing was ren­o­vated to its’ his­toric sig­nif­i­cance and the de­sign of each shop win­dow all flowed to­gether. It was as though each build­ing was dis­tinct, but to­gether the style of the town re­layed one voice and one vi­sion,” she said.

Ten months later the El­rods re­turned to Lau­rel while pass­ing through on their way to Lou­i­si­ana.

“The Ras­berry’s were so kind to host us in their lux­ury Airstream Airbnb and we en­joyed every minute,” said El­rod.

Once re­turn­ing from her va­ca­tion, Cham­ber Board mem­ber and The Perch on Mar­ble owner, Stacey Lovvorn ap­proached El­rod about her trip to Lau­rel and the idea to bring the HGTV stars to Polk County was born.

“Stacey and I reached out to the group with the idea and were very im­pressed,” El­rod added.

Mal­lo­rie and Jim Ras­berry along with Josh Now­ell travel the coun­try telling their story of a down­town come­back and when Lovvorn and El­rod called there was doubt about why they were suc­cess­ful.

“They had al­ready re­searched our com­mu­nity. They asked about the West The­atre and the Sil­ver Comet Trail. It com­mu­ni­cated loudly that they cared,” said El­rod.

With the help of the City of Rock­mart, City of Cedar­town, Ge­or­gia Power and Floyd Med­i­cal Cen­ter, the Cham­ber slated the Down­town Come­back for Septem­ber 20th at Vic­tory Bap­tist Church.

Prior to the show the three stars spent mul­ti­ple days ex­plor­ing Polk County, talk­ing with busi­ness own­ers and cit­i­zen0s, strolling through mu­se­ums and eat­ing at lo­cally owned es­tab­lish­ments.

“We were very im­pressed with both cities. If we had in Lau­rel what you guys have here… it would have been amaz­ing,” said Now­ell dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion.

VIP ticket hold­ers were treated to a meet and greet and pri­vate Q&A ses­sion be­fore the main event be­gan.

El­rod in­tro­duced the group and they took the stage af­ter a video of their come­back story played. The Ras­ber­rys and Now­ell told their story of Lau­rel’s boom as a lum­ber mill town, its’ bust in the down­turn of the econ­omy and how they were de­ter­mined to bring it back.

Af­ter re­turn­ing from col­lege the three new­ly­wed cou­ples pur­chased a loft apart­ment down­town, ren­o­vated it and over time be­gan pur­chas­ing build­ings down­town for as low as $5 per square foot. The cou­ples then would sale or rent out the build­ings to ten­ants who also saw the same vi­sion for a bet­ter Lau­rel Main Street.

Even­tu­ally the three cou­ples would go on to pur­chase one of the most di­lap­i­dated build­ings in down­town and turn it into the Lau­rel Mer­can­tile where only Amer­i­can made prod­ucts are sold.

Mal­lo­rie, the vice pres­i­dent of Pro­cure­ment for the mer­can­tile told at­ten­dees, “If we are se­ri­ous about re­vi­tal­iz­ing down­town we have to be se­ri­ous about sup­port­ing our busi­nesses here at home, and sell­ing Amer­i­can made prod­ucts.”

Along the way their friend Erin Napier chron­i­cled their jour­ney of bring­ing Lau­rel back on her In­sta­gram and on­line blog which caught the eye of a HGTV ex­ec­u­tive who reached out to Napier about a pos­si­ble TV show.

The Ras­ber­rys, Now­ells and Napiers quickly pre­pared for their test pi­lot with only weeks to com­pletely ren­o­vate a three-thou­sand square foot home.

“We were on a bud­get. We were pulling dé­cor off our walls at home, any­thing we could find,” said Ras­berry. The pi­lot was suc­cess­ful and HGTV’s Home Town was born. Mal­lo­rie’s hus­band Jim ex­plains, “we are now film­ing Sea­son 3 and it has been a ride.”

The trio pointed out that ev­ery­thing you see on the show is com­pletely real and not fab­ri­cated. From shop­ping for dé­cor to mak­ing fur­ni­ture in Ben Napier’s shop, they are com­mit­ted to be­ing 100 per­cent authen­tic.

The group also ex­plained their light­ing project, graphic de­sign ven­ture to give the town co­he­sive­ness and shared ideas for events in the Polk County com­mu­nity.

The three stars will con­tinue to be in­volved in Polk County as they will be in con­tact with both the City of Rock­mart and the City of Cedar­town brief­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion on their find­ings while vis­it­ing both towns and their ideas for re­vi­tal­iza­tion.

“I hope this event has en­cour­aged and in­spired our busi­ness com­mu­nity as well as those think­ing of open­ing busi­nesses down­town,” said El­rod.

/ Con­trib­uted by Blair El­rod

A trio of speak­ers from Lau­rel, Miss., spoke about their ex­pe­ri­ences re­de­vel­op­ing a his­toric down­town at Vic­tory Bap­tist Church on Thurs­day, Sept. 20.

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