Less than a decade ago, Water Valley, Mississippi was a forgotten small town: there were 18 empty storefronts lining its four-block Main Street and plenty of decaying homes for sale. Located only twenty miles from the University of Mississippi and the pricey town of Oxford (also former home to William Faulkner), it was well-placed for revival.
In 2002, Mickey Howley and his wife Ole Miss professor Annette Trefzer bought an $80,000 century-old home and one of those empty storefronts for $60,000. They were early pioneers in the effort to rehabilitate the old 19th Century railroad town- turning their former drugstore into the Bozarts art gallery, but it took the formation of a community to create real change.
“In the last seven years,” explained Howley- now director of the Water Valley Main Street Association – in 2015 to a White House meeting on rural placemaking, “and remember Water Valley is 3,500 people with a four-block long downtown, this team has been instrumental in bringing 88 new jobs to downtown. Adding 26 new businesses. Fixing buildings and I don’t just mean façade jobs, but major renovations in 29 buildings. Adding 14 upper floor apartments. In that new business mix we’ve added four new restaurants, three art galleries, one grocery store, one doctor’s office and one brewery.”
Howley calls it “reimagining” structures: a foundry is now a brewery, a service station is now a restaurant, a drugstore is now an art gallery and a department store is now a grocery store/school.
That grocery store/school is the BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery and Base Camp Coding Academy, founded by husband and wife team Kagan Coughlin and Alexe van Beuren. They moved to town from Washington DC in 2007 and soon after bought a 10,000-square-foot brick building on Main Street that was slated for demolition. After three years of renovations, they opened the grocery store and cafe and most recently the scholarship-only coding school, “designed to train students to be software developers in 12 months”.
A couple years ago, Coughlin left his 6-figure salary working in software at an Oxford company to focus full-time on reviving Main Street. He, and van Beuren, bought five more abandoned buildings (formerly the Blu-Buck Mercantile) and have rehabbed the storefronts which now house a furniture store, a chiropractor “a man who builds golfing simulators all over the country” and the second floor have been redone as apartments and a boutique hotel.
There are plenty of individual stories, but everyone we spoke to, point to the combined efforts of the residents as the true force for change. “To paraphrase poet William Butler Yeats,” wrote Howley in his speech to the White House group, “If the center cannot hold, things fall apart. We keep the center together. For all of us. We must have a strong core, a strong downtown for the whole town to be that great “good place.”