Friday, March 09, 2012

Mississippi Rust Belt

Out with "rust belt" and in with "legacy cities". Dying cities are really living cities. Water belt, tech belt, there is rebranding taking off in a million different directions. Before you throw another million dollars at a new marketing campaign, take a gander at what is going on in Mississippi:

These women, along with Alexe van Beuren, 28, B.T.C.’s owner, are emblematic of a new wave of business and house owners, many of them female, who are revitalizing this small town of just under 4,000.

They are drawn here by the low commercial rents and inexpensive housing stock: a 25-foot-wide storefront on Main Street can rent for less than $600; a century-old clapboard house might cost $85,000. (Ms. van Beuren’s was $6,000, though it was a total wreck, and she and her husband, Kagan Coughlin, who works in mortgage technology in nearby Oxford, Miss., paid an extra $1,000 to the squatters living there to get them to leave.)

What is especially appealing about Water Valley, besides its proximity to Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi and a 25-minute drive away, is that properties haven’t been altered much since the lion’s share of them were built between 1885 and the 1920s.

To be sure, a fair amount of shag carpeting, dropped ceilings and fake wood paneling has accumulated, but such things can be removed. (See demolition, above.)

Many of these houses have changed hands only once or twice. That’s because economic stasis or outright depression can result in a population that plateaus, as Mickey Howley, an affable New Orleans transplant and the director of the Water Valley Main Street Association, pointed out, which means the existing structures have been able to handle the housing, retail and commercial needs of the place.

“The 1920s were the high point here,” Mr. Howley said wryly.

Like many small Southern towns, Water Valley was a railroad hub and a business center for the surrounding agricultural community. When the railroad left for good midcentury, and agriculture became more mechanized or focused on timber, a crop that “takes patience but not many people,” said Ted Ownby, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, Water Valley stopped growing.

“All through Mississippi there are these beautiful little towns,” Mr. Ownby said, “and too many of them, sadly, are empty storefronts and decaying housing. A few of them, like Water Valley, have had a revival because of a good idea or a few good ideas. Artists moving in is one option.”

Emphasis added. Call it Southern Rust Belt Chic. It's a national trend that is happening despite rebranding efforts. Ironically, the demographic distress helped to create an attractive place. The recent economic restructuring is making these comeback communities viable.

The transformation is a matter of taste, a different aesthetic. We don't need to rebrand Rust Belt. We need to sell Rust Belt. But first we must figure out why some of those forgotten beautiful little towns in Mississippi turn it around and others do not.


Tom R. said...

Really enjoyed the article and your analysis. Thanks for the post, Jim.

DBR96A said...

Mississippi Rust Belt: grit and grits.

(I had to.)

Mickey Howley said...

resist branding. sell yourself to yourself and fix things.