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Today is March 30, 2020

Grin 'n' Bare It

My hometown has changed

By Kay Grafe

Kay Grafe
Kay Grafe

At one of our daily board meetings, Mr. Roy said, “I am so proud of the way Lucedale has changed in the past few years. Have you noticed how busy Main Street is now?” I said, “Yes, and all of the once vacant stores have been renovated and filled with little shops. It’s wonderful. And not only that, many of the old houses have been refurbished, and that really makes me proud.”   

Mr. Roy is a native of our hometown, and I moved here when I was 12 years old. After we married, we moved away for approximately 10 years but returned to live and raise our children in this little town. We have discussed our decision many times, and we both agree that we are glad we returned.

Lucedale, like most small towns in Mississippi, went through a period of change during the 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s. Downtown, and especially Main Street, almost died. Stores closed and business moved to the suburbs. My little town struggled to survive. I have previously discussed the book that Mr. Roy and our good friend Dayton Whites wrote entitled, “The Best Little Town.” The book describes Lucedale during 1945 to 1950. Main Street was busy, as were most Main Streets in small towns in Mississippi. The book gives this description: In 1948, Lucedale had a respectable shopping area, and most all professional services needed were available. The town had five dry goods stores, seven grocery stores, three drug stores, two hardware stores, one variety store and six new car dealerships. In addition, there were five restaurants, four hotels, three movie theaters, one pool hall, a bowling alley, a gift shop and one bank. Today, downtown Lucedale is a far cry from the way it was in the 1940s and 1950s.

Approximately eight years ago, Lucedale began a process of metamorphosis. Today, Main Street is once again busy and bustling with people and cars. But there is one big difference; most of the businesses are antique stores and specialty shops. All of the storefronts have been refurbished to fit each store’s new identity, but all still retain their original character.

To better understand what enabled this revitalization, I met with the town’s mayor, Darwin Nelson, and also Russell Evans, owner of a local real estate firm and active in the Downtown Merchant’s Association. Mayor Nelson is a dynamic leader and always anxious to talk about Lucedale. He told me that he believes a key to getting the city busy again is attracting visitors to the city. An example of this is the Second Saturday event that is held each month from March through September. At 5 p.m., Main Street is closed to traffic, vendors set up food sales and all businesses are open for visitors. These events attract more and more people. I asked him what other events the city promotes. He said, “Miss Kay, we will sponsor or encourage any event that will attract visitors to our town. If a doughnut-eating contest will get visitors to come, we’ll promote it. Our Christmas Parade is the second-largest in Mississippi. I tell people that Lucedale is a regional attraction. Just walk down Main Street today and notice where the cars are from.”

I thanked Mayor Nelson for his help and headed to see Russell Evans to get his thoughts. Mr. Evans agreed with the Mayor’s opinions but added one comment. Several investors with adequate capital and a love for Lucedale were responsible for purchasing many of the old buildings, renovating them and renting space to the right kind of businesses. Without their help, the revitalization of downtown might not have happened.

The changes to “This Best Little Town” required the efforts of many individuals and groups, including a forward-thinking Mayor and City Board, investors with adequate capital, an energetic downtown merchants association and entrepreneurs with a vision.

You are invited to come see for yourselves.

 

Contact Kay Grafe at kaygrafe@bellsouth.net.

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