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Street Talk – Award Story

Better Back Street Project Wins State Award

By Mickey Howley

Last Thursday I was in Jackson for the annual Mississippi Main Street Awards luncheon. The weather was even hotter there than here and I was not thrilled to be wearing a long sleeve shirt and tie. My personal discomfort became insignificant and turned to elation when Water Valley Main Street’s Better Back Street project was awarded the prize for “Best Public Improvement Project” for 2008 for all of Mississippi’s 56 Main Street communities.

That’s right, that clean up, and painting and planting effort of last October on Duncan Street was judged to be the state winner. I was pretty thrilled at the award and many of my fellow Main Street managers congratulated us on the award. On the drive back from Jackson, I thought why did Water Valley win this?

Let me first give you a little background on how this project started. Two years ago, July 18, 2007, a group from the Mississippi State University’s First Impression project toured Water Valley. They made a 40 page document of the pros and cons of what they saw here in their one day tour. There was a comment about Duncan Street being a “real eyesore” and they listed it as one of the top five things they thought Water Valley could readily fix.

 In April 2008, WVMSA’s first director Jessie Gurner received a call from Main Street HQ in Jackson, asking if WVMSA would like to participate in an Appalachian Regional Council (ARC) grant program.

The grant amount was 3 thousand dollars, needed volunteers to see it through and could be used for civic and economic improvement. She put the idea of the grant and the First Impression recommendation together and cajoled Annette Trefzer, Ramona Benard and me into going in June for a two day trip to Columbus to go through a grant initiation seminar.

Now it gets a bit complicated, the ARC contracts out to the Rensselaerville Institute, a non-profit group, to oversee the seminar and entire grant. The Tennessee Valley Authority along with the Mississippi Devel-opment Authority is also kicking in some of the funds and some decisions of what they would like to see projects accomplish. Mind you, Water Valley is not the only group there. Twenty groups from around the state are going through this same process. Each project is different, but the money people all want to see tangible results.

So Annette, Ramona and I named the project Better Back Street and chose the four Saturdays in October as our target time to clean, paint and polish up Duncan Street’s appearance. We asked for help and we got it.

Building and business owners like Jerry Burt, Bobby Turnage, and John Tatum came out and worked the street. Bill Warren painted signs. Cliff Lawson built picket fence enclosures. The bank presidents and vice presidents came out and sweated. Main Street members also pitched in.  High school kids and church youth groups, groups that are not usually associated with downtown, came out and really worked hard.

We had 55 individual volunteers doing the dirty and gritty job of cleaning up urban grunge. They all put in hard and dirty time on some of the most gorgeous fall weekends I have seen in a long time. If I count all who had hand someway in the project the number climbs to 80. As for the money, from 3 thousand dollars in seed money we ended up with an additional 6 thousand in matching funds and effort from the community.  

So the results are Duncan Street looks much better. One can now see the individual buildings and tell what they are.  People are using the rear entrances more. There will be more rear entrances coming.

In a case of serendipity, Fred’s had a major make over of their store. Duncan Street is no longer an eyesore. It is not yet beautiful, but one can see things are happening and that the town’s people care about it.

So why did Water Valley win?   Our project, I feel, captured the essence of what Main Street is all about. We had broad public and private support and funding. The combination of the two is critical. We had full support from the building and business owners, from Main Street as a whole and from ordinary citizens, all groups knowing that downtown spaces, whether public or privately held, are a common space for all residents to use and enjoy. I would like to thank all those who had a hand in the project, please stop by our Main Street office at 207 N. Main to have look. It is not a big trophy, but it does say “Best” in the state, period.

The Farmers Market last Saturday had 15 vendors. Produce is in. Come out and get the fresh stuff. Movie On Main is this Friday, July 3rd, at Panola and Main at dark. Come see Will Smith in “Independence Day”. And, no surprise, last week’s survey had  A/C as the modern convenience most would not like to give up.

Visit to vote on your favorite Duncan Street color.

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