By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 14th in an 18-part series about Northeast Mississippi downtowns.
Okolona is accustomed to seeing it’s downtown change over the years.
The city was burned – twice – during the Civil War. It’s stately three-story Masonic Lodge was constructed after a massive fire in the 1900s that destroyed the center of town. It suffered an exodus of businesses and stores during the 1970s and 80s as the community and shopping patterns changed.
But Okolona has apparently found its niche with the addition of several unique and eclectic businesses over the past several years complimenting those businesses that have been mainstays of downtown for generations.
“I’ve been turning a key at a business in downtown Okolona practically every morning since 1945,” said Harold Turner. “I had a general store or hardware store downtown for years. I used to tell folks when they left my store they had everything they needed.”
Turner remembered a day and age when downtown was packed on Friday night and Saturday morning with people shopping.
“There were days when we stayed open until 11 or 12 at night,” said Turner. “Businesses stayed open as long as they had shoppers and there was no closing the door at 5 p.m.”
Turner pointed out his store has changed over the years as Okolona has changed.
“My wife Loyce opened a flower shop and gift shop and we have been at this location for about 22 years,” said Turner. “My daughter Harolyn runs the store now.
“Downtown is different from when I started,” Turner added. “Our business is different, too.”
Turner said he is proud to be a downtown businessman.
“We have always been a part of downtown and try to stay involved in downtown events,” said Turner. “People in Okolona have always been good to us and we’ve worked real hard to serve them.”
And downtown Okolona continues to change as businesses move in and out.
“The city is renovating several offices to house an expanding electric department,” said Perry Grubbs, Executive Director of the Okolona Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got a brand new retail store, a new insurance company and a new restaurant. It’s good to see this activity.”
Businesses were pleased to see the Okolona City Electric Department offices stay downtown rather than move to a new location on the highway. Business owners hope this will keep traffic coming downtown to pay their bills and then stop by their store to shop.
“I would like to point out between the Bank of Okolona, the Courthouse, the Chamber and City Hall we’ve got a pretty busy little corner right in the middle of downtown,” said Grubbs.
Okolona’s Post Office, Carnegie Library, First Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church Episcopal Church, and both the police and fire department are located downtown. Okolona has its share of professional services located on Main Street, too.
Okolona’s downtown is also blessed with a mini park and wisteria arbor that adds a spot of green and a shady place to sit on hot sunny days. A Confederate memorial sits on the south end of downtown, with a newly refurbished Civil War cannon pointing straight up Main Street.
Grubbs said retail is the lifeblood of any downtown and Okolona is no different.
“The gift shops in downtown have sort of banded together and work real hard to send shoppers from one store to the next,” said Grubbs. “We have people come from all over North Mississippi and Alabama and spend the morning shopping in our stores. The word is beginning to get out about downtown Okolona and that has made several of our gift shops come on strong.”
Okolona Drug Store have been filling prescriptions, selling boxes of candy and offering up a unique shopping experience since pharmacist Jerry Morgan began his business in 1974.
“We have been in the same locations all those years,” said Morgan. “We expanded in 1976 and then expanded again in 1983.”
Okolona Drug Store employs eight people.
Morgan said, like most small downtowns across Northeast Mississippi the buildings are old and can be difficult to renovate.
“The challenge is to keep those buildings in good shape and occupied,” said Morgan. “The wiring, the plumbing and the wood and walls get old. Empty buildings don’t get better until something moves in there.”
As in most small towns, Okolona also struggles to keep local dollars at home.
“We like the out-of-town shoppers but we also are working to get local folks to shop here,” said Grubbs. “We have done a little quick math and if you make the weekly drive to Tupelo to shop, at .55-cents a mile, it will cost you an extra $1,400 a year.”
The Chamber also hosts a variety of seasonal events to get people downtown.
“We host Christmas Open House and the Christmas parade downtown every year,” said Grubbs. “We also hold the Magnolia Festival, the Spring Fling and the Fall Festival.”
Grubbs also pointed to a strong industrial base in Okolona and the need to capitalize on workers who drive into town every day.
“Those people need to eat a lunch, they buy gasoline to get back home and we want them to shop, too,” said Grubbs. “Our restaurants are packed at noon on weekdays.”
Grubbs said the Chamber will continue to work bringing business and shoppers downtown.
“We have a lot of information and want to be an asset to any business looking to come to Okolona,” said Grubbs. “Downtown Okolona really is a unique place to shop and really has a lot to offer. If we can get you downtown, we can make you want to come back.”