By Mickey Howley
In early April, 2012, Earl Gohl got out of his econo box rent-a-car in front of the BTC. Earl is the head of the Appalachian Regional Commission, that’s a 14-state federal agency and he is a big wig in Washington DC. – appointed by the President and approved by Congress. Nonetheless he is tight with your tax dollars and was driving the base Ford rental that he and his right hand man Guy Land had picked up at the Memphis airport.
They had just flown in from D.C. and drove straight to the Valley. Now Earl and Guy are both of slight build and are average height and they are late middle-age guys. Both had a look on their faces between perplexed and perturbed. Bordering on mad. Like not quite spitting mad or punch you mad, but clearly not happy.
I wasn’t worried they were going to beat me up, like I said they’re not big fellas. But they were not pleased. Earl said he thought he was in the wrong place, because this couldn’t be the town he just read about in the New York Times. He’d just driven down Main Street from the north and passed six empty storefronts in a row. The old Herald building and the five derelict fronts of the Blu-Buck buildings. He said the NYT (and me, too) had essentially sold him a bill of goods.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not fond of getting my butt chewed on. Especially when I think I’ve been working hard. I suppressed an urge to snap back and thought today I’ll really earn that 15 grand I get paid a year and be nice. I told Earl the first building was the former newspaper office owned by a lady who is taking an eternity to clean it out and the other five are owned by a guy who is just plain unreasonable. That’s not the exact language I used, but the gist. I told him we’d just gotten all of downtown on the National Register of Historic Places and hopefully new owners in the future would use the preservation tax credits to fix those buildings up and put them back in productive use.
I used the building we were standing in front of as an example. Some developer guy from Oxford had bought it and was going to tear it down for the salvage value of the bricks. A young couple here had bought it to save and then put a business in it.
And there were many buildings already recently “saved” by a bunch of different folks and back in use. That’s the revival the NYT was talking about. Young folks, mainly women, fixing buildings and going in business. We went in the BTC and Dixie’s lunch fare seemed to calm Earl and Guy’s doubts about what they’d seen up the street.
After lunch we walked south on Main, Earl asked me what we were going to do next. I said I don’t know but for sure we’ll do something. We were standing in front of the empty Hen-dricks Machine Shop.
So fast-forward from two and half years ago to now. The Hendricks Machine Shop is now a brewery. Their product spreads Water Valley’s positive creative brand across the state. The Blu-Buck buildings have under gone a tremendous change. A transition from derelict to desirable in just over a year. And that transition builds on Water Valley’s growing reputation, from a near forgotten, careworn place…a place perceived to be a derelict, to a town where people see it as a desirable place to live and have creative businesses.
Last week the New York Times mentioned fashion designer Susan Cianciolo was opening a fabric gallery in Mississippi. It’ll be in Water Valley. Susan has a powerful reputation and is known in New York to Tokyo; she can open a store anywhere. But she’s doing it here. That says something very positive about the creative business climate on Main Street.
And Earl, I haven’t talked to him in awhile, but maybe I’ll send him a very local beer and some before-and-after photos of a certain row of buildings.