By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – The Main Street Fest scheduled for May 9 is one of several upcoming projects of the Water Valley Main Street Association, Mickey Howley told Rotary Club members last week.
Howley, Director of the WVMSA, was speaker at the group’s regular monthly meeting Tuesday, March 24, at the Yalobusha County Club.
Several candidates for city office attended the meeting at the request of Rotary Club members to hear Howley explain Water Valley’s Main Street program.
Longtime businessman and Rotarian Paul Parker introduced Howley by describing him as the “biggest boaster” for the town.
“He loves Water Valley,” Parker said as he praised Howley’s involvement in the WVMSA Better Backstreet program.
That program involved making improvements to Duncan Street, which runs parallel to Main Street behind the businesses. “Changes I thought could never be made,” Parker said. “He even made nice little houses for those ugly air conditioning units.”
“I had a lot of experiences on Duncan Street because my store bordered on it,” Parker added as he told of his own experiences in business more than half a century ago. “People back there didn’t like to have any changes made.”
“I was just a young fella’ and wanted to make a few changes,” Parker reminisced. “So, we had a lot of head-buttin’.”
When Howley took the podium, he thanked Parker for the introduction and praised his long-time contributions to downtown. He described Parker as being tough and added, “Part of being tough – and we really admire tough people – is the ability to endure and perceiver. You are an inspiration to everyone on the street.”
Howley said that he introduces himself as being from Water Valley. “But, as soon as I open my mouth,” he said in his strong accent which he describes as Yat, a unique collection of dialects of English spoken in New Orleans, his hometown.
Main Street’s Plan
Howley explained that Main Street believes that through historic preservation you can have economic stimulation. “If you can restore your downtown you can bring in business and once again make your downtown viable.”
He gave a brief history lesson on the devastating effect the interstate highway system had on small downs and inner cities during the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Although the system vastly improved transportation, it took business away from downtown.
“If you are a Main Streeter, you believe that downtown is the most important part of town,” Howley said.
Currently, according to Howley, Water Valley is one of 56 full-time Main Street programs in Mississippi.
He added that the Main Street organization is a sub group of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a public-private group formed in 1947 to identify historic sites and buildings and preserve them.
Nationwide, 1,800 Main Street communities have seen $17 billion reinvested for an average of $9.5 million per community. That has brought 57,000 new businesses and 231,000 new jobs.
“That’s about one business to four jobs,” he said. “Main Street is concentrating on the small business downtown. If you compare Main Street communities to non-Main Street communites the failure rate for news businesses is half.”
“In fact, with each dollar spent on operating the local program generating $40.35 in return to the community, the Main Street program became the most cost efficient economic development program in the country.”
Four Point Program
Howley described Main Street’s four-point program as organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring.
The organization is to get everyone working together and set common goals. Promotion is to develop a positive image for the town and to focus on unique aspects of the community.
The design portion of the program is to get the area in top shape, work on historic buildings, and make the place pedestrian friendly, he continued. And, economic restructuring is to strengthen the existing businesses and expand and diversify the business base.
Howley emphasized that Main Street believes that the program has to be comprehensive in order to work. “No one focus will fix the situation.”
He also said that the program is undertaken in incremental steps and emphasizes self-help. “No one from the outside is going to save Water Valley’s downtown.”
Howley noted that the local group is proud of what they have accomplished in the first 19 months. They have started a farmer’s market that is bringing people downtown on Saturdays.
Among the group’s other accomplishments are a Charrette, pep rallies, shoppers guide, merchant promotions and the popular and successful Founder’s Day celebration.
One very important accomplishment is a low-interest loan program for people who are working in the Central Business District or Main Street buildings, he said.
In the future, the group will be putting together a central business district resource package that categorizes every piece of property in the CBD. “We are also putting together a historic tax incentive program that is a combination of federal, state, and local tax incentives.”
Howley said that an Arts Council has already been started and will sponsor art related events. “There is a lot of interest in the arts in Water Valley.”
He also reminded the Rotarians and their guests about the Main Street Fest scheduled for May 9.
“And, that is just in the short term,” Howley said. “The longer term goal for us to really get people using Main Street Saturdays and at night and get the buildings rehabbed. We don’t want to tear anything down. We want to take that existing space and better utilize it.”