EDA, Chamber revamp ahead of ‘Home Town’ premier

By Rebecca Patrick

In just a few short days, the national spotlight will shine on Laurel and Jones County as HGTV’s newest series, “Home Town,” premiers Tuesday, March 21, at 9 p.m. Hosted by Ben and Erin Napier, the show’s pilot episode last year drew more than one million viewers, prompting HGTV to put a full season of shows into production.

To celebrate “Home Town’s” premier, the Jones County Chamber of Commerce will host “Meet the New Chamber,” a town hall block party, March 21, from 6:30 until 9 p.m. on Oak Street and Magnolia in downtown Laurel. If it rains, the event will be in the Laurel Train Depot.

“We are encouraging everyone to come out, take a stroll under the lights and enjoy the shops and restaurants,” said Larkin Simpson, vice president of the Jones County Chamber of Commerce. “There will be live music and food vendors leading right up to the time ‘Home Town’ airs.”

With “Meet the New Chamber” as evening’s theme, the Chamber and Economic Development Authority are using “Home Town” excitement as an opportunity to introduce their revamped components and respective roles in the community. Focusing on the goals of visibility, credibility, advocacy and education, the more clearly defined roles should allow the entities to better serve the community.

“We’ve always had the assets in place,” said Ross Tucker, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County. “Now, we are putting ourselves in a position to better serve them.”

Directing its attention toward small/medium business development, retail attraction, membership investment and tourism, the Chamber hopes to further expand membership and benefits.

“The newly reorganized Chamber is comprised of diverse, focused, energetic individuals in our county that represent their organizations with the highest regard,” said Alicia Walker of Sanderson Farms who serves as Chamber chair. “The Chamber is the largest pro-business advocate in our community. Our plan is to offer members-only perks, exclusive advertising opportunities and networking exposure for members. Our group is ecstatic to see the continued growth of our community.”

A new initiative the Chamber offers is the Community Development Grant Program. Awarded on a first-come-first-served basis, these grants are designed as a 50/50 match for amounts not to exceed $1,000. The purpose of this new program is to encourage existing property owners and tenants to upgrade their buildings for public safety and accessibility for disabled persons. Grants can also be used to enhance building exteriors and improve the overall appearance of a facility.

Concentrating its efforts on large industrial recruitment, existing industry support, government affairs and asset development, the EDA wants to place more emphasis on the Chamber.

“The Chamber is the voice of local business,” said EDA chair Jim Rasberry of Rasberry Financial Services. “We are so lucky to have the economic diversity and job offerings that we have here in Jones County. We at the EDA took stock of that recently and realized it’s time to focus on our homegrown businesses. We have been so fortunate to be home to the pioneers and innovators of so many industries and it’s time we celebrate that.”

Rasberry added that the EDA will continue to make attracting new businesses a priority and will work in partnership with the Chamber to help those businesses grow that already call Jones County home.

The third and newest component is the Community Development Foundation, which is designed to assist with health and public safety initiatives, leadership development and broad community development.

George Bassi, director of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art and chair of the CDF, explained that the CDF’s formation provides the Jones County EDA and Chamber of Commerce with a new 501(c)3 nonprofit partner that will be the conduit for tax-deductible contributions to assist the Jones County community.

“The CDF’s primary role will be as the fundraising arm of Leadership Jones County and Future Leaders of Jones County,” he said. “Both of these leadership programs provide critical financial assistance and valuable volunteer service hours through community-wide projects each year. Additionally, the Foundation will hopefully facilitate a variety of community initiatives bringing together partners with similar interests to not only meet the needs of Jones County, but make Jones County a better place to live, expand a company or start a business.”

Tucker believes that this revamping of Jones County Chamber and EDA is vital to being ready for the anticipated uptick in interest in Jones County and will position the community to take advantage of the situation economically. He pointed to Waco, Tex., as a prime example of the importance of being prepared for what happens to a community if a television series becomes a hit.

When HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” took the nation by storm in 2013, the town of Waco, Texas, was not prepared for the resulting influx of visitors. Before the hit television show, Waco was best known as the home of Baylor University and not a place most considered to be a typical “tourist destination.” Now, however, all that has changed.

In 2016, Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of “Fixer Upper,” opened Magnolia Market at the Silos. On average, Magnolia Market attracts about 2,000 visitors weekly. However, with Spring Break season starting, those numbers could soar even higher.

According to an article published in “The Waco Tribune” recently, the Magnolia Market’s economic impact is pretty impressive. Carla Pendergraft, marketing director for Waco’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that in March 2015, before Magnolia Market moved downtown, 86,000 people visited local attractions. In March 2016, after Magnolia Market opened, that number increased to 195,259. That was a huge increase in the already astounding 134,957 February 2016 numbers.

“As a frequent traveler to Waco, I have seen first-hand how ‘Fixer Upper’ has been a driving force in the area and cannot wait to see what windows of opportunity open for us as a result of ‘Home Town,’” said Walker.

Could something similar happen in Laurel? Despite more than a year separating the airing of the pilot episode and the series premier, interest in the show has remained high. Nearly 22,000 people are fans of “Home Town’s” Facebook page. On Instagram, Erin Napier has 36,000 followers, while Ben Napier has 21,000 and Laurel Mercantile has 25,000. Several of those fans have already come for a visit.

With the recent opening of the Napiers’ store, The Laurel Mercantile, as well as numerous new boutiques, restaurants and specialty stores, Jones County appears poised to offer many more reasons for tourists to drop in.

“We already have people who come to Jones County to visit our existing places like Lauren Rogers Museum, Landrum’s Country, Bok Homa Casino and The Deason House, all of which offer something unique to diverse groups of individuals,” Tucker said.

Now, as interest in “Home Town” gains traction, Tucker believes there will be people who want to see where the show is filmed and take in the places it features. When this happens, the Chamber can help point these guests to the existing attractions, thereby benefitting the entire community.

“At the Chamber and EDA, we want to help everyone be prepared for the good things we believe are about to come our way,” Tucker said. “If just one-tenth of those Waco numbers were to happen to us, that would be an incredible boost to our local economy.”


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.