Like a lot of small towns in Mississippi, the future was uncertain in Baldwyn. Downtown businesses were closing, sidewalks had less walking traffic, and parking spaces were plentiful. And it hadn’t happened overnight.
There was a slow decline in activity and commerce. The era when two movie theaters were in business at the same time on Main Street, people were congregating downtown day and night, and mom and pop stores were the rule had begun to wane as far back as the 1960s.
A major highway was also diverted from town when Highway 45, a national north-south corridor, was moved a mile west of downtown as a new four-lane 20 years ago.
And while predicting any town’s future is an inexact science, Baldwyn can more clearly see where it’s headed now than in perhaps half a century. In a positive direction, that is.
In the six-block historic district of this town of some 3,500 citizens in northeast Mississippi, as many as 10 buildings are already renovated or are currently under massive reconstruction. From an impressive new barber shop to fashionable women’s clothing stores to a community theatre and performing arts center that opened this summer, downtown Baldwyn is showing signs of major life again.
Businesses that are either moving downtown or just opening, like a pottery and crafts complex, a coffee house, a fitness center, and a recording studio that moved from Tupelo, join others that have been downtown for years, like Houston’s Pharmacy, City Barber Shop, Cornerstone Insurance, Susan’s Flowers and Gifts, and two banks – Farmers & Merchants and Regions.
There was vision but there had to be money. Some of it came in the form of grants. Much of it came from the financial success of some citizens who call Baldwyn, just a 15-minute drive north of Tupelo, their hometown.
“The old things we grew up with just weren’t working anymore,” said Mayor Michael James, born in the long-gone Caldwell Memorial Hospital in downtown Baldwyn in 1964.
That’s a sentiment that must be shared by any number of Mississippi mayors. But James, in his second term, sees a community of people working together with whatever it is they can bring to the table.
“We’ve got some people here who have the financial resources and the interest in the town to get this thing to move along as fast as we have,” said James, also a business owner of one of Baldwyn’s historic mainstay industries, the car business. “Every time one of these people renovates a building, it seems like there is somebody waiting to get in it. There’s an excitement in the air that hasn’t been in downtown Baldwyn for years.”
Local businessmen like Earl Stone and Clark Richey have been at the forefront of the renovations. Stone and Richey, who own separate businesses, each own several downtown buildings and have moved forward with their plans for renovation.
Richey renovated and opened the new Claude Gentry Theatre, a community theater named for a businessman from the 20th century who owned two theaters on Main Street and also served as town historian. The interior of the impressive theater is the Simon Spight Auditorium, named for a citizen of the town who left resources to enhance historic and civic needs of Baldwyn.
“It’s a very exciting time,” said Richey, also a native of Baldwyn who owns an engineering firm located on Main Street. “We have more activity going on in our historic district than we’ve had in my lifetime. It’s been a slow decline over decades, but all of a sudden the pendulum has swung back. We’re bringing folks back to Baldwyn with the developments we’re doing here.”
The community theater, opened in August, is a centerpiece.
“It’s the stake we put in the ground, and we’re all rallying around that. Things are building off of that,” said Richey, who also has an old soda fountain in a former drug store under renovation with grand plans there as well.
This can only work if many are on board, according to another citizen who is heavily involved.
“Without the partnership that we have with our local government and our school, we could not prosper. But we have that, and that’s why it works,” said Lori Tucker, executive director of the Baldwyn Main Street Chamber. “People here are willing to see that vision. The city leaders and school leaders and business owners see that vision. Assisting the Boys and Girls Club, or any worthwhile project. If people here did not see that vision and have that relationship, it would not work. But it can work. We are seeing that.”
Projects are happening all over town as a result of the efforts of many.
“The mayor and city officials and I worked very closely on improvement of sidewalks. We thought it was important to give our kids safe walking routes to our schools,” Tucker said. “Those sidewalks were built in the early 1940s, uprooted by trees, dilapidated. We applied for the “Safe Routes To School” program and were granted 100 percent, close to $400,000 to connect the high school, middle school, and elementary school to downtown. We’re going after more, this time about $200,000 to finish that project.”
And downtown living is back. Tucker and her husband Gregg, a high school coach, live in a renovated upstairs apartment. There could be as many as eight downtown residences when buildings are finished.
James said city leaders are as excited as any of the citizens.
“I had one alderman tell me he drove through downtown one of the nights that a play was going on at the theater. He said it gave him chills because he remembered as a kid people being on Main Street, even after 5 o’clock,” James said.
In September, some 24 plaques will be placed on downtown buildings that will tell the story of those buildings, when they were built, who the owners have been, and the businesses that have been in them.
“The six-block historic district has been designated as a part of the National Register of Historic Places,” said Edwina Carpenter, who is director of the Brice’s Crossroads Visitor and Interpretive Center in Baldwyn. “These plaques are the result of many years of working together to try to bring awareness of the history of our town. We’ve reached back into the past to bring to the present and future what the buildings represent and who the people behind them were, so that our young people will understand the history of their town and area.”
Richey said it’s been an easy sell, even for himself, to make things happen for Baldwyn.
“This is where I’m from. This is where my business is going to be. This is where my family is going to be. This is where my four children are,” he said. “I just want it to be a great place. I’m all in.”
Any problems? Yes. One. But James is glad to have it. And that’s parking. It hasn’t happened yet, but James sees a day when parking spaces will be hard to come by.
“I feel blessed to be the mayor of a town like this where everybody is working together to make good things happen,” he said.
Even if city leaders do eventually have to figure out where all the people downtown are going to park. Of course the citizens of Baldwyn will likely celebrate that as well, as the resurgence of their town continues in a major way.
— Jeff Roberson, OMSpirit.com