JONES COUNTY CHAMBER OFFERS COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT GRANTS

By: Rebecca Patrick

            LAUREL – Spring is a season that inspires people to refresh and renew, to clean up and spruce up. With that in mind, the Jones County Chamber of Commerce is offering its members an opportunity to do just that with its new Community Development Grant Program.
            The purpose of the grant is to encourage existing business owners/tenants to upgrade their buildings for public safety and accessibility for persons with disabilities. Grants may also be used to enhance building exteriors and improve the overall appearance of a facility.
            “There are various programs like this throughout the state, and the Chamber thought this was something we could do to help our members,” explained Ross Tucker, president and CEO of the Jones County Chamber of Commerce. “By reinvesting in them and their improvement efforts, all of Jones County benefits. This is a win-win program, and we are excited to offer this to our Chamber members.”
            The grants for this year are available through September 30. All applicants will be awarded on a first-come-first-served basis. They are structured to be 50/50 reimbursable matches for amounts not to exceed $1,000.
To qualify, applicants must be current members in good standing with the Jones County Chamber of Commerce and the building must be located in Jones County.
Applicants must have a current business license and operate a retail business, restaurant, service company or office and employ fewer than 50 people. If the applicant is not the building owner, written permission, signed and notarized, must be obtained from the building owner.
Applicants must comply with all state and local laws and regulations pertaining to licensing and permits associated with the improvements.
Applying for the grant gives the Economic Development Authority of Jones County staff permission to visit the business for evaluation. The application must be approved by the Chamber’s grant committee whose decision will be final.
Grant recipients must provide before and after photographs documenting the grant expenditures. These photographs will be provided to the Chamber and may be used without restriction to promote the grant program. Recipients must wait 365 days before applying to the program again.
To be considered, applicants must complete the Community Development Grant Program Application in its entirety. The application is available online at the Jones County Chamber of Commerce’s website.
Applications should then be submitted to the Jones County Chamber of Commerce either by email to rosst@edajones.com or by U. S. Mail to P. O. Box 527, Laurel, MS  39440.

TODAY’S FURNITURE: HELPING OUTFIT HOMES FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS

By: Rebecca Patrick

            LAUREL – In a country where, according to “Forbes” magazine, only about 25 percent of small businesses make it past their 15th anniversary, it’s a pretty big achievement when one makes it past the half-century mark.
            With that statistic in mind, Today’s Furniture in downtown Laurel is approaching its 51st anniversary, no small feat for a store that employs fewer than ten people. Husband and wife team of Kline and Dawn Allred Estess are the second generation co-owners of Today’s Furniture. Dawn Estess believes adhering to her parents’ advice has been the key to the store’s success.
            “We have always treated everyone the same, with respect and dignity,” she explained. “God created everyone equal. That’s the way my mom and dad did business and that’s the way we continue to do business.”
            Dawn Estess’ parents, Ken and Jackie Allred, opened their furniture store in its first location, Heidelberg, in 1966 with a $3000 loan.
“There was lots of hard work, blood, sweat and tears involved in getting that store going,” Dawn Estess said.
As with many family-owned businesses, the children often tagged along to work with their parents. Dawn and her sister were no exceptions.
            “I remember, as a child, riding my tricycle around the store (in Heidelberg),” she recalled with a smile. “The store was in an old, old building that had a big pot-bellied stove in the middle to heat it.”
            In 1989, the Allreds opened their Laurel store in addition to the one in Heidelberg. In 1993, they closed the Heidelberg store to concentrate on Laurel. Over the years, Today’s Furniture has been housed in several locations. With each new move, the business expanded. The current location on Leontyne Price Boulevard boasts one of the largest furniture showrooms in the area at nearly 24,000 square feet.
            “One of the things a lot of people don’t know about our building is that it used to be a bowling alley,” Dawn Estess said.
            Helping people create a home where they can relax and get away from the pressures of their work gives the Estesses great satisfaction.
            “I remember a man who taught school and worked for mom and dad in the afternoons buying furniture from my parents,” Dawn Estess said. “That was 45 years ago and he’s still buying furniture from us.”
            “I don’t think any of us ever expected, 50 years later, to be dealing with the third and fourth generations of the store’s original customers,” added Kline Estess.
            The Estesses worked alongside the Allreds for many years. Ken, who passed away earlier this year, and Jackie got to see their grandsons play and eventually work part time in the store. While working together as a family has many positive aspects, Dawn Estess said that there is at least one common misperception.
            “People think when you own your own business you just hire people to do everything,” she laughed. “That’s definitely not the case. In a small business, you do a little bit of everything. You can’t just shut the store to go to your kid’s ballgame. It does limit what you can just go and do.”
            With their eyes toward the future, the Estesses are looking forward to having many more years in the furniture business. Among the commitments they have made with regards to their inventory is to use sources that are as local as possible or made in the USA.
“Almost all of our upholstery items and half of our bedroom (furniture) are made in Mississippi or Alabama,” said Dawn Estess.
“And we also carry the Ashley and Lazy Boy brands, both of which are made in Mississippi,” Kline Estess added.
The Estesses are also excited about the City of Laurel’s plans for beautifying and expanding Leontyne Price Boulevard. In conjunction with the city’s plans, they plan to do a little sprucing up of their storefront as well.
“The exterior of our store is very deceptive, we hear that almost every day,” Kline Estess said. “From the outside, (people) have no idea it’s got nearly 24,000 square feet of furniture. The store is very plain on the outside, but, with the new road coming through, we have plans to (work on the exterior). However, until we know how close the road is going to be to our building, we have to wait on that.”
In the meantime, the Estesses look forward to doing what they feel they do best.
“We try to offer a wide selection of home furnishings in a wide variety of styles and price points, from starter homes to the home of your dreams,” Dawn Estess said. “That’s what we plan to keep on doing. And, we will continue to treat everyone like we want to be treated, just like my parents taught me.”

JONES COUNTY EDA, CHAMBER BEGINS FOCUS ON TOURISM

By: Rebecca Patrick

LAUREL, MISSISSIPPI – Unless someone in Jones County has been living under a rock for the past several months, it is hard to escape the excitement that has surrounded the first season of HGTV’s “Home Town.” For those who may have missed all the hype, the television show is filmed in and around Laurel and features Ben and Erin Napier, along with other local craftsmen and businesses, as they renovate and restore neglected properties around town. One of the highest rated HGTV series this season, “Home Town” has been renewed for a second season.

Unlike the hometowns of some of its television predecessors, such as “Fixer Upper” set in Waco, Texas and “Duck Dynasty,” in West Monroe, Louisiana, Jones County has had the benefit of hindsight to help prepare the area for increased interest in the area as a tourist destination.

The Jones County Chamber of Commerce is trying to learn from the experiences of its sister cities by being proactive when it comes to tourism.

“Basically, we are taking on a tourism initiative as a component of the Chamber and EDA,” explained Larkin Simpson, vice president of the Chamber. “We have established a promotions committee with a tourism subcommittee to work on making sure we take full advantage of the all the positive publicity ‘Home Town’ has generated for our area.”

During the recent “Home Town” finale night, the Chamber invited local and regional media outlets to send representatives for a mini tour of Laurel. Beginning at Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, reporters were treated to dinner and a driving tour of Laurel’s historic district.

“We wanted to host this event for our locals to get a taste of what it is like being a tourist in our own backyard,” explained Simpson. “Many times our local media cover events and get stories, but they aren’t always an integral part of the story. Through our Chamber, tourism committee and community organizations, we have all worked together to craft a message of hospitality and openness to incoming visitors. We wanted our local media to experience that, as well as write about it, so other local residents, store owners and patrons would get a sense of pride in where we live. We want to put our best foot forward and this is one of the best ways we know how.”

During the driving tour, George Bassi, executive director of Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, served as the guide and pointed out several historic homes of interest, including some that had been renovated during the first season of “Home Town.” Although Bassi sees the impact of tourism everyday with guests at the museum, he believes most people are unaware of this component to economic development.

“We wanted to let our media know that tourism is alive and well in Jones County,” said Bassi, who also chairs the Chamber’s tourism sub-committee. “‘Home Town’ has created a broader awareness of tourism in our community, but most Jones County residents probably don’t realize that tourism is an industry for our area. We have had tourists on a daily basis visit us for years, but now that number is swelling and we need to educate our local citizens on tourism.”

Local media who had representatives take the tour included The Chronicle, The Impact, The Leader-Call, Blakeney Communications and WDAM and WHPM television stations.

“We want our local media and residents to understand the role tourism plays in Jones County’s economy,” said Ryan Griffin, marketing director of The Impact and chairman of the Chamber’s promotions committee. “In the future, we plan to host media events that span the southeast United States region to showcase all Jones County has to offer. Because of our unique history, amenities and current features like ‘Home Town,’ Jones County is a tourist destination.”

Also participating in the media tour was Scott Speakes, publisher of “okra.” a new regional magazine based in Cleveland, Mississippi. With an emphasis on “real Southern culture” across 13 states, “okra.” is a bimonthly magazine that debuted in May. The first issue featured food culture, while the second issue, available July 11, will include an article on the Napiers, Laurel and “Home Town.”

Having already done the interviews and photo shoots in February for the upcoming article, Speakes wanted to take the media tour and enjoy the “Home Town” season finale party as a wrap up to the story.

“I think that the exposure that the state is getting from the show is great,” Speakes said “Even though Laurel is getting a lot of the attention, the whole state in general is (benefitting). People are going to come in, stay and visit all over the state.”

Speakes added that people visit Mississippi for many different reasons, but often discover other exciting things about the state that they didn’t know before coming.

“Like in the Delta, we get tons of tourists for the Blues Trail, from Clarksdale to Cleveland to Dockery,” he said. “We get a lot of Europeans and people from all over the country. (Jones County) is going to be a part of that, too. People who are fans of the show are going to want to come down and see (where it takes place).”

During the time between “Home Town” seasons, Chamber officials believe, as Speakes mentioned, that there will be an uptick in visitors coming to Jones County. Although they are looking for a small-town experience, many will be pleased to learn that they can get a little high tech assistance to make their stay more enjoyable.

“Tourists are always looking for an experience,” Bassi said. “They want to walk the streets, see historic houses and sites, shop in quaint, local stores and eat in local restaurants. Most of our tourists want to have an experience. One new feature that the Chamber of Commerce and a team from Leadership Jones County helped develop this spring is a new phone app that allows visitors and locals alike to search for restaurants, attractions, places to stay and shopping.”

The app to which Bassi referred, “Visit Jones,” is free and works with smartphones and iPhones. Sections users can select are eat, play, shop, stay, events, and discover.

“It’s funny, people come to Laurel-Jones County for all sorts of different reasons,” Simpson said. “There isn’t just one thing that attracts them. It’s really cool when you talk to someone who comes for the ‘“where is that?’ and you respond, ‘well, it’s right up the road here.’ Shopping to leisure, to sports and outdoor recreation, to history and art. Whatever brings people here, they leave with so much more than they thought they were coming for. I believe the app will help our visitors realize that Laurel-Jones County offers them a lot more than what they initially came for.”

A few challenges come with promoting any area as a tourist destination. The first is educating local citizens.

“That can mean everything from hospitality training to picking up litter to making sure that local residents are knowledgeable about our tourist attractions,” Bassi said. “We must put our best foot forward because social media and word of mouth can kill our reputation if tourists have one bad encounter.”

The second challenge is making Jones County a destination, not just a side stop.

“Our goal is to hopefully have visitors spend the night and spend money locally,” Bassi said. “We have seen an influx of day-trippers who stop off the interstate for a few hours and now we need to expand their time in Jones County and let them know the many aspects of our community.”

Simpson said that now is a special time in Jones County.

“There is energy in this town, it seems, from those who have lived their whole lives here to those who have just stepped off the Crescent City line,” he said. “When you come to Laurel-Jones County, we want you to know you are coming somewhere special. We want you to know you are coming home.”


MISSISSIPPI’S BEST KEPT SECRET

For most people, the very mention of the state of Mississippi associates adverse perceptions of ignorance and inferiority. Those people, of course, were not born and raised in the state of Mississippi as I was. If they had, they would know what I know- that Mississippi is a state of rich heritage and good ole’ southern hospitality. But most of all, it is the place I call home.

In recent months, the place I have called home for more than 40 years has been the topic of much national debate. Unlike most national debates, the discussion hasn’t surrounded a natural disaster, act of violence or political debacle. Instead, the national debate about Mississippi has centered around nothing more shocking than a cable television show and Matthew McConaughey.

Although McConaughey’s name is common chatter amidst hair salons and gossip magazines, he’s rarely the subject of association with, dare I say it, the state of Mississippi. But as Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are a-changin’.”

In McConaughey’s latest and critically acclaimed role as Newton Knight in the Hollywood blockbuster, the Free State of Jones, he plays a disenchanted Confederate army deserter who organizes and leads a militia of deserters, runaway slaves and women in a rebellion against the local Confederacy in Jones County, Miss. Regardless of your political sympathies, the unbridled Civil War saga and account of Jones County history has generated plenty of national media hype and more than $20 million in the box office, ranking sixth in ticket sales during opening weekend, according to a recent Box Office Mojo report.

As if a big screen flick wasn’t enough to get the nation buzzing about an unheard of place called Jones County, the little town of Laurel, Miss. was smacked right on the map thanks to a good hammer, a few nails and a fresh coat of paint. HGTV’s newest hit home improvement show, Home Town, is earning national acclaim for big renovations in a small town. Using found materials and old textiles, Ben and Erin Napier are preserving the character of their quaint hometown of Laurel, Miss., one classic home at a time.

From colorful histories to historic homes, Jones County has a little something to offer for everyone. According to Mississippi Magazine’s Best of Mississippi list, a voter-based survey that details the best that Mississippi has to offer in 71 different categories, Jones County received a total of 19 awards and honorable mentions. This year, Jones County took home four top state-wide awards including Best Museum for the Lauren Roger’s Museum of Art, Best Antique Mall

for Southern Antiques, Best Park for Mason Park, and Best Mother of the Bride Boutique for Mimi’s Bridal and Formal Wear.

Jones County also received 15 honorable mentions, or M-Lister awards, including Best Downtown Area for downtown Laurel, Best Place to Live for the city of Laurel, Best Farmer’s Market for Laurel’s Main Street Farmer’s Market, Best New Restaurant for Blue Crab Grill, Best Breakfast for Vic’s Biscuits, Best Flea Market for the Rusty Chandelier, Best Performing Arts Venue for the Laurel Little Theatre, Best Reception Hall for The Gables Event Center and Catering, Best Bed and Breakfast for Wisteria Bed and Breakfast, Best Home Décor Store for Southern Antique Mall, Best Place to Find High-End Women’s Clothing for the Quarter Century, Best Place to Find Tweens and Teens Apparel for the Pink Anchor, Best Place for Pet Supplies and Grooming for Petsense, Best Catfish for Charlie’s Catfish and, finally, Best Southern Buffet for Estelle’s Southern Cuisine and Catering, where McConaughey himself was spotted dining during filming.

It’s easy to see why Jones County is Mississippi’s best kept secret, and has been for many years. If you would like to take a trip down to Mississippi or simply visit a new city in your home state, come stroll through the historic towns filmed in the Free State of Jones or HGTV’s Home Town. From the big screen to the small screen, Jones County’s got it covered. Grab breakfast at Vic’s Biscuits or go see a show at the Laurel Little Theatre, just make sure you come. We would love to show you around what we call our hometown.

Ross Tucker is President of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, located in Laurel, Miss. Tucker has dedicated his entire career to the economic development of Mississippi’s best cities and counties. With more than 16 years of experience developing local communities, Tucker is recognized throughout the state as an expert on tourism and entrepreneurship.