By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times
Editor’s Note: This is the 10th in an 18-part series about Northeast Mississippi downtowns.
FULTON – Downtown Fulton is going through a bit of a renaissance.
Less than a decade ago, it would have been safe to call the city’s modest downtown area a “ghost town.” Besides a smattering of long-established businesses, the Itawamba County Courthouse, City Hall and weekday traffic to Itawamba Community College campus, downtown Fulton was mostly a collection of blank storefronts and empty buildings … a relic from a bygone area.
But that’s starting to change. Within the past few years, a new batch of businesses has cropped up. The city’s downtown Playgarden Park – opened in 2010 – has given people a reason to come downtown and stay for a spell. Many of those empty buildings have been filled with restaurants or retail shops. These days, there’s daily foot traffic and annual events like the Stand By Your Grill BBQ Championship in the summer or October’s Fall Festival.
Drive through downtown on a warm Saturday and the park will be filled with families. It’s like a switch has been flipped. It’s alive.
“Last Saturday, I drove through downtown and saw three birthday parties at the park. Three,” said Chip Mills, a local attorney who recently set up shop downtown … in fact, in the same building his father, Chief Judge Michael P. Mills, once practiced law.
It’s a good sign, he said. People are returning downtown, bringing with them that small-town atmosphere that many, including Mills, feel was lost with the rise of “big box” retail stores in the ’70s and ’80s. In a way, the revitalization is, if not an open act of rebellion, certainly a turn against that.
“It’s almost as if people have seen that the downtown area can thrive again,” Mills said. “There’s just something special you can attach to a small town and small business.”
The business hub
One block west of Mill’s office is Downtown Floral, which opened its doors in 2011 and was among the first of what could be considered the area’s “new batch of businesses.” Co-owner Kevin Knight said that part of the appeal of opening a business downtown is that it represents the true heart of Fulton and, in a way, the county as a whole. The county courthouse is downtown, as is the library and sheriff’s department. Some of the county’s oldest stores – Bob Steele’s Flower and Gift Shop, Lee Ann Ladies & Children’s Shop, S&W Pharmacy, Riley Building Supplies – also call the area home. The county’s history is encompassed in downtown Fulton.
Knight called it the “true business hub of Fulton.”
It’s a sentiment with which Mills, independently, agreed.
“You can hit all of your personal needs in downtown Fulton,” he said, listing places to purchase items for the home, get a hair cut and grab a bite to eat all within walking distance of each other. All of these businesses are individually owned, which Mills said makes patronizing them more appealing.
“In a place like Fulton, if you’ve lived and grown up here, you personally know the people who own the businesses here,” Mills said. “The fact that you’re going to see the owner of a business (other places) puts a personal face to the business.”
In a way, he said, it’s a return to the way things used to be.
Sharlene Parrish, co-owner of J West & Marly Kait – a trendy clothing store that recently opened in the former home of Senter Drug Store, one street over from Knight’s shop – recently returned to her hometown of Fulton after years of being away.
It’s good to be back, she said. It feels like home.
“We’re getting back to the old downtown Fulton,” she said. “It’s comfortable … personable.”
When Parrish and her nephew, Jake West, opened their clothing store in November, it followed a massive series of renovations to the space. One of their goals, Parrish said, was to bring out the old charm of the space by peeling away the walls to expose the original brick and incorporating the drug store’s hulking cast-iron safe into the decor.
Parrish said it was all part of “bringing downtown’s history back.”
It’s part of what brought Knight downtown, too: The area has charm. With age comes character … something Knight said he wanted to capture when he opened his business. He imagines other business owners feel the same.
“Everything became so commercialized in the ’80s and ’90s, which left out a lot of downtown areas like Fulton’s,” Knight said. “But there’s a uniqueness in what downtown Fulton has to offer, and everyone wants to be unique these days … So, we’re backtracking. What once was, will be again. It’s the turning of a page.”