Entrepreneurs from across the state gathered in McCastlain Hall to attend an event led by guests from one of HGTV’s most popular shows, “Home Town,” on July 30 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The event, called Downtown Comeback, consists of a presentation from “Home Town” stars Jim and Mallorie Rasberry and Josh Nowell. Using videos, humor and stories, the three give the step-by-step version of how they were able to, with some help from other partners, revitalize the downtown area of their hometown, Laurel, Mississippi. The talk covered almost every crevice of the story of Laurel’s comeback from the first mention of making a change in the town to the day an HGTV producer direct messaged one of the partners on Instagram about having a television show.
“Home Town” stars Ben and Erin Napier, as well as the Nowells and Rasberrys, and focuses on the restoration of Southern homes in Laurel. Its pilot episode, which aired in January 2016, had a record 2.2 million viewers, making it the highest rated pilot in HGTV history. It was renewed in March 2019 for its fourth season, which will premiere in 2020.
The Downtown Comeback speakers also had the spotlight at the keynote for students of the 2019 Community Development Institute, which took place in McCastlain Hall at 8:30 the next morning on July 31. CDI is a training hosted by the Center for Community and Economic Development, a division of UCA’s Outreach department. The website for CDI says that its goal is for participants to “learn how to connect community assets with opportunities, build consensus with local and regional leaders, and sustain the economic development process over time.”
One attendee, who is, like many other attendees, actively involved in projects to upgrade his local downtown, was Hillrey Adams, the mayor of Mountain Home, Arkansas, who brought 8 people with him to the event including the Chamber of Commerce president.
“We’ve already got a lot of good things in Mountain Home, but we’ve got a lot of room for growth down there,” said Adams, “We’re trying to create a spot so that when [tourists] are there fishing on our lakes and rivers, they have some place to go at night.”
On June 20, 2019, the Mountain Home city council approved an ordinance to permit some public alcohol consumption in the downtown area, making it the first approved entertainment district in the state following a measure passed by state legislators in April that allowed this type of ordinance to be approved.
“Our law went into effect on July 24 and on that last Wednesday afternoon at 4:30, when it kicked in, we had people that went out to talk a walk around the square, a little salute to the entertainment district,” said Adams.
One of the features that Jim, Mallorie, and Josh spent a large amount of time talking about was the strategy behind their light project, which brought criss-cross-over-the-street patterned string lights to downtown Laurel. Not only did the pattern of the lights mimic lights that were up during a time in the 50s and 60s when downtown Laurel was bustling, they also provided an aesthetic for beautiful, if not magical, photographs.
“They showed in there tonight the light in Laurel, one of the things I started talking about in my campaign is what I call lights at night. If you’ve got lights at night, something good is going on in that community,” said Adams.
The speakers said more than once that they attribute nearly everything that was accomplished in the revitalization to the change in perspective.
“This lighting project brings attention to downtown, brings business to downtown, brings people downtown, people start supporting the restaurant, new restaurants open up, there’s more people in the coffee shop…” Jim Rasberry said.
In Mountain Home, it appears that the entertainment district is already doing its work to bring attention to the downtown area.
“We’ve already had a major real estate transaction down there, someone bought a building on the square and they’re gonna be moving a microbrew onto the square next year some time,” said Adams, “That’s the type of thing we want to see happen there.”
The speakers made sure to remind the audience that there is no magical “they” and changing a community starts with the people who live there. At this point in the revitalization, the team of Laurel natives has restored over 40 historic homes, over 60,000 sq. ft of commercial space, and recruited over 25 businesses. They also run 3 retail stores as well as a bed and breakfast.
“If they can do it in Laurel, Mississippi, we can do it in Mountain Home, Arkansas,” said Adams.