Lessons from Laurel

Publication Note: This column was first published in the August 16, 2017 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format.  It is the 18th installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.

Summertime in Lonoke is a true state of mind.  More than simply a season, our already slower-than-average pace noticeably deccelerates with a good portion of of our 4,287 people traveling out of town, on a road trip, or at the lake at any given time.

I enjoy the clear distinction of the seasons and the natural rhythm of life that is reflected in the annual change we experience here in Lonoke.  It affords us something of a mental break and the freedom to exchange demands and deadlines for a time of contemplation.  Thankfully, this summer, our family was blessed to embark on a handful of road trips.  As summer closes this week with the first days of school, I am reflecting on a few places that stand out in my mind, considering the opportunities ahead for our own hometown.

This summer, our family found ourselves diverting from our normal path of travel through Mississippi to explore a few small towns that have captured our attention for some time.  In a previous column, I briefly highlighted the work underway in the town of Laurel, Mississippi.  Natalie and I came to learn about Laurel several years ago through the social media postings of a resident artist and graphic designer, who, along with her husband, ran a small business in the community and regularly posted journal writings about life in her hometown.  The rest of the world is now quite familiar with Erin and Ben Napier, as the first season of a television show centered on Laurel concluded this past spring, highlighting the couple’s work restoring homes for new residents moving into their community.

While many television shows of this nature can slip into a formulaic pattern, the Napiers have taken a decidedly different approach, noticeably highlighting the character of their community and the people that make it a unique place.  The result is a refreshing take on small-town life in the national spotlight that is not focused on the materialism typical of home renovation shows, but instead celebrates the people and the team which create a successful project, and portrays a real community where home acquisition is an accessible and affordable prospect.  I am also fond of the way in which the Napiers’ project approach reuses the existing durable materials of a structure, in lieu of wholesale demolition and discarding of the historic fabric.  In observing Ben and Erin’s work and approach to community, their loving attitude toward their hometown of Laurel is contagious and intriguing.

While the appeal of Laurel, Mississippi is in the current spotlight, it is important to note the hard work that allowed the community to reach this point.  The Napiers articulate the story of their community’s renaissance in a very redemptive way.  Erin writes, “I think the reason people love so much to see the transformation of an old house on TV is because we see ourselves in it. Our hearts all have the capacity to become hurt and broken and ugly. We’re messy, complicated, imperfect people who need to believe that forgiveness and redemption is possible. Old houses are a great illustration of that.”

A drive through Laurel illustrates the lasting effect of this approach to rebuilding a community.  The shining star of Laurel is the revitalized downtown and the surrounding historic residential districts.  When our family arrived, approaching downtown via Sawmill Drive from the west, we were welcomed by a giant mural announcing the district’s gateway.  Driving along the brick-paved Central Avenue under a canopy of stringed lights, Downtown Laurel was on bright display this pleasant Friday evening in late May.  We stayed overnight and spent Saturday morning visiting places we had anticipated from social media and postings by Laurel Main Street.  A stop in the recently opened Sweet Somethings Bakery and the much anticipated Laurel Mercantile Co. were the highlights of our walk through Downtown Laurel.  Bookended by large murals painted on the sides of their brick buildings, it is clear that Laurel appreciates public art and the power of good graphic design in celebrating their hometown pride.  When the rain cut our walk short, we enjoyed a drive through the historic residential areas, recognizing homes we had watched be lovingly restored on the television show.  Laurel’s collection of parks, tree-lined sidewalks, and walkable neighborhoods make it easy for a visitor to imagine living in the community.  

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Those behind the rebirth of Laurel will enthusiastically point out that the vibrant downtown which residents and visitors enjoy today is the result of more than a decade of intentional work on behalf of volunteers, leaders of all generations and backgrounds, and key stakeholder organizations in a passionate pursuit borne of love for their hometown.  I recently had the privilege of interacting with the Executive Director of Laurel Main Street, Judi Holifield, who graciously offered insight regarding her hometown’s journey back.  She notes that Central Avenue, today occupied by restaurants and shops lit by the now-recognizable overhead strings of lights was, in the not-too-distant past, oddly covered by a metal shed roof structure spanning the street, which had been converted to an unoccupied pedestrian “plaza” during an urban renewal project.  Describing a 1970’s and 1980’s-era Laurel that was losing population and at risk of becoming like any other generic community on an Interstate highway, Judi explains, “When the shed was torn down and the streets reopened to traffic, momentum began to shift back to downtown.  A study by the Mississippi State School of Architecture brought a vision back to the town.  The Laurel Board of realtors along with a few business owners started the main street project. The Mississippi Main Street organization and the Mississippi Development Authority, along with the Arts Commission took the group and town through the ‘charrette’ process.”  Judi is a passionate advocate for the work of her Downtown merchants, creatives, and the arts community, and her enthusiasm is reflected in the work of her colleagues, as well.

Small business owner Carrie Cullum writes in a recent post entitled “Start Small — Do Big: The Power of Baby Steps” found on Laurel Main Street’s website, “What started as a small, grass-roots movement to bring back Laurel’s downtown to its former glory has become a booming trend!  It didn’t happen overnight or even over a year, but with a series of small, incremental improvements, these efforts provided momentum for long-term economic transformation and improved quality of life in our community.”

I find this approach of incrementalism to be motivating and encouraging for other small communities, such as ours in Lonoke, who are just beginning the journey.  Lonoke may glean much wisdom from the examples of communities that were once in our position, and are now reaping the rewards of their investment.  Judi Holifield excitedly shares, “We are actually getting to see those things that people wanted [to] happen!”

I’m inspired again by Simon Sinek, who notes, “Curiosity is essential for progress. Only when we look to worlds beyond our own can we really know if there’s room for improvement.”  I believe when we look outward, we can learn lessons from towns such as Laurel, a true model of a visible, attractive, and connected community.

What will Lonoke look like in 2022, or even further, ten years down the road?  We have a vision in place, in the form of our Strategic Action Plan.  In applying the example of Laurel, we must now strive continuously for incremental progress, generating and celebrating small victories along the way and earning the trust of partners throughout the process.

Ryan and Natalie Biles are Lonoke residents who have enjoyed road trips and family vacations together for nearly 17 years.  Now with three sons in the backseat, their journey is chronicled on Natalie’s Instagram feed @ShineInteriorDesign, which is linked in the latest post at www.lookatlonoke.com .


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