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Small town coming on strong

Mississippi has some of the most wonderful places and people in the country.

One of the neatest places in the Magnolia State is in Jones County, and the city of Laurel  — a place I called home for ten years before leaving five years ago.

I had the chance this past weekend to make a day-trip to Laurel and visit my old stomping grounds and to say things have changed is an understatement.

When I left Laurel in 2014, the city was on the brink of beginning revitalization efforts of the downtown, which at one time had been filled with beautiful brick streets and a bustling business area. But like a lot of small towns, the downtown area dried up due to development along Interstate 59, much like I imagine Vicksburg went through over the last few decades.

Spurred by the efforts of a younger generation of natives who had returned to Jones County to make Laurel home, the business climate quickly changed through the Laurel Main Street program.

A young Laurel businessman by the name of Jim Rasberry and many like him helped foster the Main Street program in the downtown district not long after Laurel began recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He and his visionaries wanted to reinvent Laurel and promote its rich history while also making the downtown area relevant again.

He put his money where his mouth is, and one of the first buildings to be revitalized is the historic First National Bank building.

“The building still has the same architectural character that it did when it was built in 1903 and is a true cornerstone of downtown,” said Rasberry, who moved his financial service into the building that also occupies the Laurel Welcome Center. “We are proud to be here and happy to continue doing business in a building that has meant so much to the history of Laurel and Jones County.”

Walking along the streets of Laurel on Saturday, cars as well as people — many of them from out of town — were everywhere.

At a suggestion, we ate lunch at Pearl’s Diner, and didn’t regret it.

The blue-plate lunch of fried chicken, purple hull peas, cornbread and sweet tea was awesome. 

Pearl Campbell is another one of those success stories in Laurel. She opened her downtown restaurant in a vacant historic building that once housed a jewelry store.

“This spot was vacant, so I asked him (owner of the building) could I have this spot to do a restaurant and as you can see, he did,” Ms. Pearl said.

She believes it’s her duty to make her community better and invest in its people.

“We all got a part in helping any parts of Mississippi,” she said.

Ms. Pearl is a small success story, but a much bigger one is Erin and Ben Napier, a couple who have called Laurel home for a number of years after graduating from Ole Miss and getting married. Erin grew up in Laurel and her family roots run deep in Jones County.

The couple has been entrepreneurs in Laurel with Erin beginning a small graphic design business, while Ben is a woodworker and craftsman. Erin was “discovered” by a TV producer through a blog she has done for a number of years and that soon developed into a television show on HGTV called “Home Town,” where the couple revitalizes homes in Laurel. The popular show has created a tourist attraction for downtown Laurel with a mercantile and general store in an area that, quite frankly, not many people dared venture into when I left Laurel five years ago.

Laurel’s success is one that many communities, including Vicksburg, can take a page from and make their own piece of Mississippi heaven.

Rob Sigler is editor of The Vicksburg Post. You may reach him at Rob.Sigler@VicksburgPost.com.