By: Rebecca Patrick
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.”
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.