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Dressing Up Mississippi’s Downtowns

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.


In 2023, Mississippi Main Street communities opened 372 businesses, expanded 71 businesses, created 868 new jobs, and completed 170 façade renovations. Seventy new construction projects and 139 public improvement projects were completed, and 704 downtown living spaces were created. Investments: $249 million in private dollars, $77 million in public funds. 

I chatted with Jim Miller, executive director of the Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA), who is earning his doctoral degree in higher education administration this summer from the University of Southern Mississippi, about misperceptions that hinder Main Street growth, how it works to get a downtown roadmap and improvement grants, and his dream number of Main Street communities in the Magnolia State. 

When you look at the economic impact numbers, our program is working well. I’d like the business community to know the MMSA is worth investing in, that we’ve seen growth in these towns. (The Main Street Approach model focuses on four facets: organization, promotion, design, and economic vitality.) 

Another element that seems maybe a little bit underknown, or maybe people are a little bit intimidated by, is understanding the three different levels of membership with the MMSA.

All municipalities start at the Associate level. From there, they can go to the Network level. And the big jump is to the designated level. We have 48 designated communities across the state. To make the jump to the designated level, we develop a downtown roadmap, a very comprehensive plan specifically tailored for that downtown.

Here’s how it works: The MMSA absorbs the cost on the front end of approximately $27,000 to bring in a team of experts after a period of community feedback. The team typically consists of about four to five people, which might include an architect, engineer, urban planner, tourism expert, economist, et cetera. The exact make-up of this team is specific to the community and its needs. We do market analysis to determine the direction of economic revitalization for the community, based on unique assets, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. 

Then we put together a detailed, step-by-step, understandable guide to follow. The guide has been an immensely helpful document for these communities. And it helps create synergies between various players at the table while also engaging the community. 

These communities repay $27,000 on the back end. For example, $10,000 the first year, $9,000 the second year, $8,000 the third year, and then $2,650 each year thereafter. 

The ROI on communities that engage in the downtown roadmap is far beyond their investment.

I would encourage business leaders interested in seeing their downtowns revitalized to speak with us. Let us explain how the process works. Let us come and present our program to demystify some of the details that maybe on the front end are a little hard to understand. Our MMSA communities across the state would provide testimony to the power of the Main Street model. 

Could a small place like my hometown, Seminary (population: 308), afford to join the lowest membership level? 

All communities begin at the associate level, which is $500 a year. Most communities can swing that. It opens the door to the resources of Main Street, including technical assistance. (The network level is $1,500 annually; designated level is $2,650 annually.) 

Are facade improvement grants available?

We do involve designated communities in various grant opportunities, which might include opportunities for façade improvements. MMSA communities are also benefiting from an annual grant program that began this year through the legislature, the Mississippi Main Street Revitalization Grant Program, or MMSRG. Façade improvements are eligible through that program. 

What’s the greatest challenge you face?

Awareness. We want people to know that downtown revitalization work is a tremendously important and effective economic driver. We work in concert with other forms of economic development. There’s so much research that shows the quality of place is such a strong driver of economic development.

What’s your dream number of Main Street communities?

We have 300 municipalities in Mississippi, give or take. We have 48 designated, two network, and approximately 30 associate communities. I would love to see every single municipality as a Main Street community. I know that’s probably not feasible, and we don’t have the capacity to manage that many, but I would love to see at least 150 Main Street communities. 

It’s a matter of momentum. Once these communities begin looking around and seeing how their neighboring community, an MMSA member, is turning things around, they’re going to want to know the secret. That’s why we do what we do. 

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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