Invest In Small Towns to Create Big Change
By Ed McMahon, Chairman of the National Main Street Center’s Board of Directors
When Erin and Ben Napier returned to her hometown of Laurel after college graduation in 2008, the community was struggling with empty storefronts and economic disinvestment. That same year, the city of Laurel became a designated Main Street program, and more than a decade later, the city of 18,000 has seen a rebirth of downtown business and an influx of tourists, many of whom have come to know and love Laurel through “Home Town,” Napier's HGTV show. Laurel’s story resonates with viewers—in large part because it showcases the power of place and the ability of a committed group of people to make a difference. Through the redevelopment efforts of the Napiers and many other community leaders, downtown Laurel has become a thriving destination. Today, the city is known for its historic Craftsman-style homes, mom-and-pop boutiques, local restaurants, enchanting murals and small-town charm.
The story of Laurel also illustrates the power of the Main Street approach to economic revitalization, which creates change through small steps, small developments, and small business. That’s the strategy taken by the Mississippi Main Street Association, an economic development nonprofit that supports small towns and neighborhood commercial districts around the state. In just the last year alone—and in the midst of a global pandemic—Mississippi Main Street reported nearly 600 net new jobs and nearly 200 net new businesses in designated Main Street communities.
Yet politicians love nothing better than a ribbon cutting for a big new factory or distribution center. In fact, as much as 90% of state economic development dollars in the U.S. go to large companies. Take, for example, Nissan’s Canton factory, which employs about 5,200 people. To attract the plant, the state of Mississippi provided roughly $1.3 billion in subsidies over the first decade of operation—which works out to more than $200,000 per new job.
There’s no doubt projects like these have economic value. But too often, support for small businesses and small towns is overlooked in favor of elephant chasing. Contrast the amount of money the state put into the Nissan plant with the amount it allocated to Mississippi Main Street. Over the last six years, the nonprofit helped its Main Street communities create more than 8,000 net new jobs with less than $500,000 in state funding—averaging $62.50 in state investment per job created.
On a dollar for dollar basis, investing in place—through small businesses and local communities—is a better use of tax dollars. When we support small businesses, their owners tend to reinvest that money back in the community, rather than funneling it to large corporate entities outside the state. Small businesses also account for the lion’s share of new U.S. jobs. In fact, small businesses have generated 65% of net new jobs since 2000, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. And finally, small businesses help create a sense of place that is essential to attracting talent—and ultimately, to attracting large employers, too. People want to live in communities with vibrant commercial districts, walkable downtowns, a variety of restaurants, and local character.
Another successful Main Street example is the community of Tupelo, known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Between 1990 and 2020, Main Street investment helped reduce the downtown vacancy rate from 13 to 4 percent, as the city added live music venues, art galleries and farm-to-table restaurants. Today, visitors flock to Tupelo to attend the annual Elvis Festival or visit Fairpark, a vibrant mixed-use district built on the former site of the county’s fairgrounds.
In a state where the biggest city, Jackson, has a population of just 160,000, it’s clear that small communities matter. Mississippi’s economy depends on towns like Tupelo and Laurel, and residents and tourists alike are drawn to their unique charm. By supporting places like these—and organizations like Mississippi Main Street—we can create lasting assets that will pay dividends for the long-term. Just as Ben and Erin Napier have demonstrated, investing in small, local development offers a proven return on investment—and is key to building thriving communities in the Hospitality State.