Moments before the ribbon cutting for the Laurel-Jones County Visitor Center, Ross Tucker, President/ CEO of the Jones County Economic Development Authority said, “Today, we get to celebrate our achievements.” Although, he could have easily stolen Hannibal Smith’s A-Team catchphrase to describe the moment, “I love it when a plan comes together!”
And what a plan it was.
Michael McKinnon, the architect for the project, traced its beginnings back to 2005, when he first met Laurel Housing Authority Director Alrick Young as they both participated in that year’s Leadership Jones County class. McKinnon explained that it was a testament to the importance of that program, which is one of the first programs like it in the state, that it could facilitate connections that would bear fruit after nearly two decades. The power of the program’s networking function demonstrates, “why that program necessary,” McKinnon said.
Others in attendance for the ribbon cutting identified other points of origination for the Visitor Center.
Since at least 2013, members of the local community have worked to develop a Visitor or Welcome Center for the City Beautiful. Sites were suggested, some even offered for donation, but plans fell through. For a few years, a Welcome Center was set up in downtown Laurel but it eventually closed. For the last few years, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art has served as the de facto Visitor’s Center with Director George Bassi ensuring that visitors get the right information and, often, a tour of the historic district.
But while an official visitor’s center struggled to gain traction, the need for it only grew. While community leaders sensed a need for the facility in 2013, a few years later, everyone else would notice it to, when RTR Media started filming a television show in Laurel that thrust the City Beautiful into the national spotlight.
Home Town, starring Laurel residents Ben and Erin Napier, became one of the network’s most popular programs and increased the amount of tourism to Laurel and Jones County to levels that residents could not have anticipated.
After a few years of steady growth, Tucker and Bassi approached Laurel Mayor Johnny Magee with an idea to create a tourism tax to collect three cents of every dollar spent by visitors at hotels and other lodgings and use those funds to make the city more welcoming to tourism and finally fund a visitor’s center.
“It sounded a bit far-fetched,” Mayor Magee recalled at the ribbon cutting. “People said it would never pass the senate. But that was before they met Juan Barnett.”
Barnett, who serves as the representative for Mississippi State Senate District 34, alongside representatives Donnie Scoggin (MS House District 89), Robin Robinson (MS Senate District 88), and Omeria Scott (MS House District 80) were able to garner support for the new tax and get it approved through the state. The “far-fetched idea” then came back home to be voted on by Laurel residents in the summer of 2022 where it passed by a wide margin. “It’s an honor to be able to participate in this endeavor,” Barnett told the crowd at the ribbon cutting.
In the meantime, Alrick Young was working on his own big visions – and hearing from the state government about it. As Director of the Laurel Housing Authority, Young oversees the daily operations of the oldest public housing program in the state. Over the last several years, the LHA has been working to update the housing units and has replaced many of them with new buildings. For example, in 2019, LHA moved residents from its Triangle Drive property, demolished and completely rebuilt the units in an 18-million-dollar project aimed at providing new units for the residents served.
However, since the housing units in that area are part of the oldest public housing in the state, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) noted that at least one of the buildings should be saved for its historical value.
This is when the plan really started to come together.
Remember how the visitor’s center floundered because it could never find a permanent home? Now, Young had a building available and the city had a funding source in place.
“Any where else in America, that would be an office building or storage,” McKinnon pointed out during the ceremony as he praised Young’s vision for the space. Rather than keep the building for LHA to use as extra office or storage space, Young offered it to the city for a Visitor’s Center.
Young partnered with the city, who will operate the visitor’s center with funds from the tourism tax revenue, while the LHA maintains ownership of the building and maintains it as a historical site per the MDAH. It was a win-win.
With the foundations in place, they were able to reach out to local community members for help in bringing the Visitor’s Center to life once and for all. In total, eight organizations including the Jones County Board of Supervisors ended up contributing to the project with the Laurel Housing Authority contributing the largest portion.
Michael McKinnon was brought in to design the space and told by Young to “go wild”. McKinnon’s design work leaned heavily on the fact that the building was once housing and “served as a portal for families that entered Laurel” and will now serve as a portal for those visiting Laurel. One of the six units in the building was maintained and renovated. Once construction was completed, the unit was redecorated and refurnished by Amanda Conelly with RTR Media to restore to the way it would have looked when the building first opened in 1940.
McKinnon’s design also included making adjustments to the building to make it, and its exhibits, accessible to everyone.
The largest portion of the building has been dedicated to exhibition space. McKinnon wanted to make the exhibition tangible and present items in such a way that visitors will feel like they are “part of the space”. He did this by keeping the main room open and emphasizing the natural light that streams in from the buildings 56 original windows. “Light’s a big deal in that space,” McKinnon said. “We wanted to harness that emptiness.” McKinnon stated that the project was the result of working with “a great client, with a great vision.”
McKinnon also designed a frame work to suspend over the exhibition space made from 85-year-old reclaimed wood from the demolished units. The frame work is reminiscent of the framing of a home and provides space for photography to be displayed. Currently on display are posters celebrating famous Laurelites (including Leontyne Price, Ralph Boston, and Lance Bass) and posters providing information on the history of Laurel.
The display posters within the center were created and provided by the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. LRMA Director George Bassi, who Young referred to as “the man of the hour”, stated that he and his staff, “got do to the fun” of providing exhibition pieces and artwork for the space.
Bassi and his staff also applied for and received grants on behalf of the Visitor’s Center to hire an artist from Chicago who worked with current residents of the Laurel Housing Authority to design and create a public mural for the outside of the building. They also received a sculpture on loan which will be on display outside of the Visitor’s Center until 2028.
A second mural on the fence at the property was designed by Shelley Jones of the Jones County Economic Development Authority.
Members of the Laurel Council of Garden Clubs contributed to the landscaping and beautification of the property.
In addition to historical exhibits and artwork, the facility features an art park, public restrooms, a dog park, parking for recreational vehicles, an electric vehicle supercharging station, and, of course, information on local attractions.
The Jones County Chamber of Commerce hosted the ribbon cutting event to celebrate the facility’s grand opening on Thursday, November 9th at 10 a.m. and also hosted its monthly First Friday event at the facility at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, December 1st in order to encourage local business owners and community members to visit the facility.
The Visitor’s Center, located at 601 Leontyne Price Blvd., is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday though Friday and can be reached at 601.399.6644.
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