By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – When Kim Caron opened her art gallery on Main Street in downtown Tupelo nearly four years ago, business didn’t exactly take off.
Sure, there was the ever-popular Tupelo Hardware next door. And the more than century-old department store, Reed’s, was across the street.
But there wasn’t the type of foot traffic Caron was hoping to see.
“When I moved in, I knew it would take some time to build the business,” she said.
While Tupelo Hardware and Reed’s, her nearest downtown neighbors, brought in their fair share of customers, the next nearest business, a bar and restaurant, struggled.
Today, Caron is all smiles, as are other businesses in the vicinity thanks to a much-needed shot in the arm.
Much credit goes to Blue Moon Enterprises, comprised of Mike Gillentine and his business partner, Scott Wagner. Early last year they bought the three buildings that previously housed Main Street Vintage Guitars, Latin Quarters (and before that, Lucky Joe’s and Benjamin’s) and The Big Easy.
Their plan, now being executed, was to convert the first-floor spaces to retail and turn the upstairs areas into luxury apartments.
In the past six months, two retail shops – Swirlz and Farmhouse – have opened in those spots, along with a new restaurant, KOK.
Last week, another specialty shop, About the South, opened in a building that had been vacant for 15 years.
And Caron in October moved her gallery a few doors down. Caron Gallery now sits between Farmhouse and Swirlz.
Like About the South, Farmhouse moved from McCullough Boulevard. Swirlz had occupied a space around the block off Court Street.
KOK was developed by Mitchell McCamey and Seth Copeland, who own the popular Neon Pig.
All the activity in downtown Tupelo – particularly the 100 block of Main Street where these recent developments have taken place – have brought new energy and excitement.
“It’s just fantastic,” Caron said of the breath of life the area has experienced. “It feels like we have our own little family here.”
The resurgence of downtown Tupelo – and all downtown areas, for that matter – is an investment in time and money. Considered by many as the “heart” of a city, healthy downtowns are an important part of a community’s identity and success.
In Tupelo, more than $142 million in public and private money has been invested downtown since 1991. Last year, nearly $2 million was invested.
“What got the ball rolling in the past few months was Blue Moon Enterprises,” said Jessica Hollinger of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, which worked with Blue Moon – and other developers and business owners as well – to build momentum.
And Gillentine couldn’t be happier with the results so far. Soon, he’ll be taking down what’s left of the green metal sheeting that’s covered the brick-and-glass facade of the buildings.
Having the stores, gallery and restaurant all open within months of each other was a nice chain of events.
“Before, it was 8,000 to 10,000 (square feet) of wasted space,” he said of the downstairs area that once housed the defunct restaurants. “They were spending $3,000 a month on utility bills alone.”
Gillentine and Wagner knew they could better utilize the space, and they did.
Farmhouse owners Bev Crossen and Traci Lewis rave about about their new digs, which feature home decor, antiques and gifts.
While their new location is about the size of their old location, navigation through the store is much easier.
“It flows better because everything’s on one floor,” Crossen said.
Like Caron, she said “it feels like being part of a family. We’re working together and talking to customers and sending them to see the other stores here. That’s very nice for small businesses to be able to help each other.”
Copeland and McCamey opened their restaurant, KOK, or Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, in what had most recently been The Big Easy. But long before that, it was home to Kermit’s Bakery. Inspired by the name, they opened the restaurant with a focus on using as much local meat and produce as possible.
It’s been well-received, Copeland said.
“We’re always trying new things and we tweak the menu to see what our customers want,” he said, noting several new burgers have been added. “Downtown has a life of its own, and we’re glad to be a part of it.”
Swirlz co-owner Kim Root opened on 2009 in her former location and moved to Main Street on September, about a week before Crossen and Lewis opened Farmhouse.
“We were off the beaten path, so it was a great move for us,” she said. “It’s actually been a bit of an adjustment because we were a destination for stationary and bridal . … now there’s more foot traffic and more people walk in. They don’t necessarily buy, but they do browse around, and that opens opportunities for us.”
Crossen said having a block of occupied storefronts creates a synergy that benefits everyone as more shoppers some to see what’s going on.
“I’m pleased with the whole spirit of downtown,” she said. “It’s just fantastic.”