By Mickey Howley
It seemed an unlikely meeting at first. Last Thursday on Water Valley’s Main Street sidewalk two groups of three people each strolling and sight seeing. Monika and Ernst-Helmut Varain and their daughter Maya from Hamburg, Germany. Malcolm White and Mary Margaret White (not related) and Alan Henderson from Jackson.
I’m not sure how the conversation got started, maybe it was Malcolm, as he is one of the most curious and engaging public officials you’ll ever meet; or maybe it was Monika, as she is friendly by German standards—actually any standard, but there they were having a pretty animated conversation about what they had already done and were still going to do in Water Valley– both groups.
And why not have that sidewalk conversation? For it does not matter if you have come 150 or 5,000 miles, we all have that human desire for talking about food, friendship, and culture. Sure Water Valley is small, but it is also distinctive. We don’t have casinos or beaches or antebellum plantations or any of those big traditional tourism draws. But we’re good with food and friendly and distinctive in our own special way. We have not been covered like many places by the universal corporate blanket that smothers everything in a generic sameness. People want to visit and more importantly some folks want to move and live here. Most small Mississippi towns can’t say that.
So I walked up as the conversation was coming to an end and the groups once again moved on. Maya Varain asked me if Malcolm was the Der Hauptstaat-minister der Tourismus and I said “Ja”.
I often think German names for public officials and places funny—for example mayor is Der Bürgermeister and city hall is Das Rathaus. I’m not making this up and don’t take it for a backhand comment on our elected officials, either.
Later that night Malcolm spoke at the Chamber of Commerce banquet. He talked about what is good and getting better here, how creative economy is a catalyst for the local economy as a whole. He talked about how he and his division often use Water Valley as a positive role model of how a small town can set its own destiny. And that’s not political pandering; the Valley is talked about statewide. Mary Margaret later forwarded me a letter from another Mississippi town that heard our story and found it “inspirational”. That, my fellow “Bürgers” (citizens), is what has really changed here. Water Valley’s direction and our path and attitude about the future is the real changed story. We’re role models. Would you have ever thought that? Not waiting and hoping–like so many places–for that Deus ex Machina moment where something comes out of the clear blue to change the situation for the imagined better. But using our heads and hands and what is here and setting our own course with positive results for the collective “us” who live and work here. That’s the story and that’s why that improbable sidewalk conversation happened.