Downtown groups look to 'create a sense of place'

By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo isn’t the only city that wants to beautify and revitalize its downtown.
According to Sam Agnew of the Mississippi Main Street Association, groups throughout the state are looking for ways to turn their downtowns into destinations for shoppers, diners and tourists.
“As they take the measures,” he said, “people want to be there, businesses want to be there, building owners fix up their buildings and it creates a sense of place that is unlike anywhere else in the community.”
The strategies vary, said Agnew, who is based in Tupelo. Some projects focus on sidewalk beautification while others add “traffic-calming measures.”
But they are steering away from the urban renewal strategies used in the 1960s and 1970s, when downtown streets were either closed to auto traffic or turned into one-way roads.
Tupelo’s plans
The Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, in partnership with the Community Development Foundation, is proceeding with a long-term plan to make Main Street more pedestrian- and bike- friendly and yet maintain traffic flow.
The preliminary master plan includes synchronizing traffic lights and restriping Main Street to a three-lane road from Green Street to Front Street. Also included are sidewalk planters, decorative street lights, a park on Front Street and amenities for cyclists and pedestrians.
Agnew said Tupelo’s project is complicated because the downtown area has the busy U.S. Highway 6 running through it. He compared it to the situation in Gulfport, the state’s second largest city, where U.S. 49 runs through downtown.
Lisa Bradley, executive director of Gulfport Main Street Association, said the highway, also known as 25th Avenue, used to be a planted boulevard.
“It got dwindled down to make room for parking and traffic,” she said.
The road was converted to four lanes, plus right-turn-only lanes.
Hurricane Katrina “really busted things up” in the waterfront downtown, Bradley said.
When it came time to fix the damage, Bradley said the city wanted to create a “walkable and beautiful downtown.”
Gulfport is in the process of the conversion, which is funded by $7.5 million of federal funds designated for hurricane rebuilding.
The street, Bradley said, is changing to four auto lanes with partial left-turn lanes. It also will have a grassy planted median, palm trees, new curbs and new sidewalks.
“It will look very similar to how it looked 50 years ago,” she said.
‘Change is painful’
The process has created good and bad experiences that others, including Tupelo, can learn from.
The business-oriented downtown used to be empty at night, Bradley said. Since the revamping started, a nightlife has developed and bars and restaurants have opened.
But the work has been disruptive for downtown merchants.
“Change is painful,” she said. “No one is happy with construction.”
She said it helped that the plan was developed through a series of public meetings. The meetings and the constant communication, she said, have been an essential part of the success of the project.
“Make sure your merchants are aware of the interruption,” she said. “They’ve got to know that it’s going to hurt, and they have to buy into the end product. It’s progress but it’s not always pleasant while it’s going on.”
In Tupelo, the Downtown Main Street Association, is working with the Mississippi Department of Transportation to secure federal funding.
If the group gets the funding, it will focus on sidewalk beautification first, said Debbie Brangenberg, executive director of DTMSA. Resurfacing and restriping Main Street will be timed to coincide with the rerouting of Highway 6 in two to three years.
“Over the next year and a half, we will gather more information and be testing the signalization before anything permanent is adopted,” Brangenberg said. “It’s sort of like moving into a new house. You arrange the furniture and you just have to live with it for while to see if it works.”