By Mickey Howley
This Thursday, Dec. 13, and the next Thursday, Dec. 20, many downtown Water Valley merchants will be open later until 7 p. m. It’ll be dark and might be cool to cold. But the lights are on downtown and the stores warm and bright and the merchants welcoming. And you should take advantage of this—we could go on and on about how local shopping is the key to keeping downtown alive. And having an alive downtown is great for the whole town. Keeps the schools good, real estate steady, people wanting to live and work here.
If you travel around you can tell how well a town is doing by looking for plywood. Doesn’t matter if it is a big town or a small one. Look for plywood covering commercial building windows. A sure sign that building isn’t working and the town itself is hurting. You’ll see lots of upper floors plywooded up and when it gets to the ground floor storefront windows covered with plywood, well that’s an especially bad sign. There are plenty of towns in Mississippi and through out the country with plywood covered windows. As someone told me once, you can learn from positive examples and you can learn from negative ones.
Plywood is the indicator of the negative ones. Plywood means vacancy, long-term vacancy. Vacancy with no real active hope of coming back and no one really trying. It is the downtown vacancy rate that is the true number of how well a town is doing.
In 1988, Culpeper, Virginia had a downtown building vacancy rate of 86 percent. Almost one in ten of their buildings downtown were vacant. Plywood windows were everywhere. Culpeper is a lot like many small towns throughout the south. The town population is 10,000 residents, Culpeper also has a railroad depot downtown, and the town was built before the automobile. The 10 blocks of commercial downtown buildings make Culpeper feel not larger than Water Valley. Bigger towns within a half an hour driving distance had pulled away much commercial business, while the population had re-mained the same. So folks lived there and they loved their town, but they’d drive an hour round trip to shop in other towns. Sound familiar?
But Culpeper residents had a change of heart and change of attitude. They saw the handwriting on the wall and it did not look good. And they did something about. Fixing buildings, shopping local, bringing their town back, asking for some help, but starting the work themselves, welcoming all who would join the process. And today, 24 years later, the downtown vacancy rate–for both upper and ground floors–in Culpeper is 2 percent. Proof there is power in believing in local energy and local economy.
Vox Press of Oxford this Friday evening at 7 p.m. has a book release party at Bozarts Gallery. The book is “Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah.” Those of you who might have known Barry and those of you who may have only read his work won’t want to miss this. And those of you who are curious about Mississippi fiction in general should make it, too.