New Albany ‘First Impressions’

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Mississippi economic developer Leland Speed has said, “Pretty sells, and ugly don’t.”
Joe Fratesi, the institute’s community development director, passed along that and a host of other advice – along with a good dose of praise – to New Albany leaders and other residents recently.
Fratesi presented the initial results of “First Impressions,” a program of Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute. In the program, a team from one city visits another, taking note of problems and assets from a newcomer’s point of view.
“It’s not an inventory; it’s a snapshot,” Fratesi insisted, noting that locals use the information to set their own priorities for improvement.
New Albany’s First Impressions team, from Batesville, identified opportunities for improvement from landscaping, road conditions and building maintenance at several city gateways to signage.
Fratesi said the group was impressed with New Albany’s architectural street-name signs but added that wayfinding signage to help visitors find attractions was scarce and unattractive. He also noted the town could benefit from a strong sign ordinance.
“I think signage has one of the biggest impacts on people’s impression of a community,” he said. “Signage is something most communities can get their arms around – if they want to.”
Fratesi said both ongoing downtown improvement efforts and the value of keeping city and county functions downtown shine through.
“Y’all have got a really great downtown,” he said. “Bankhead is a great example of what to do with a main street. You want to take that and apply it to other streets.”
The Batesville team found one Bankhead Street tradition unnerving, as did Fratesi himself.
“I would highly encourage from a community planning standpoint, from a safety standpoint, don’t park in the middle of the street,” he said.
The Sportsplex also drew many compliments from New Albany’s First Impressions visitors.
“This is a fantastic facility,” he said. “The phrase we heard over and over was, ‘Man, I wish we had something like this in our town.’”
Other assets Fratesi and the visiting team noted were the Park Along the River, the soon-to-open Tanglefoot Recreational Trail, Northeast Mississippi Community College’s branch campus, Baptist Memorial Hospital, a mix of commercial development, the Main Street program, plenty of historic houses and regional growth.
“You can go in some communities and feel like they’re going backward,” Fratesi said. “New Albany is moving forward. You’re going to have growth, jobs, retail coming here.”
Fratesi will continue working periodically with the Union County Development Association, Main Street Association and other groups to help the community decide some priorities.
“Lack of funding isn’t usually the biggest problem. I think not having a plan is the biggest problem,” he said. “The first step is finding out where you’re wanting to go – and then we’ll go find the funds to do that.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com