LAUREL, Miss. -- When Johnny Magee joined the Laurel City Council in 1997, there was little reason for anyone to visit downtown.
“City Hall was here, the courthouse was here, and you could pay your power bill,” Magee said. “Everything else was shuttered up, the stores were closed, nothing happening whatsoever. You couldn’t see a car hardly pass by.”
More than two decades later, Magee enjoys spotting license plates from states across the country as he walks the streets, now the mayor of a city that has become a tourist destination.
“It’s amazing. Laurel is amazing,” Magee said, beaming.
It didn’t happen overnight.
A small group of citizens got involved, determined to breathe life into the area.
They chose to live downtown and invest their own money to fix it up.
“Slowly, gradually things started to pick up in downtown. Things started to open. People started to walk around downtown and see that this is a nice looking place,” Magee said.
Where empty buildings stood, developers saw potential.
In 2015, Laurel reached a turning point, according to Judi Holifield, the executive director of Laurel Main Street.
Two years later, Erin and Ben Napier – two of the locals who envisioned what Laurel could be – became the stars of a home makeover show called “Home Town.”
Filmed in Laurel, the fourth season premiered last month on HGTV.
Putting Laurel on the map
“You don’t have to be an expert to save your town. You just have to care enough to get up and do it,” said Erin Napier, in an episode from the show’s second season called “Colorful Custom Cottage.”
The cottage, with creamsicle orange window trim and a buttercup yellow kitchen, was renovated for Pearl Campbell, the owner of Pearl's Diner.
“When I walked in here, I said, ‘Oh, my God! It’s beautiful!’” Campbell said. “They have done wonderful things and I’m so happy that they had that vision to bring our town back alive.”
Since Campbell and her Magnolia Street diner were featured on “Home Town,” she has not spent any money on advertising, she said.
“The show has given a better perception of the state of Mississippi,” Campbell said. “I have had people from all over the world – London, Holland, Australia … all over the United States.”
Inside her guest books are messages from visitors who traveled from Canada, Nashville, Missouri and San Antonio.
“When they say, ‘Ms. Pearl, we’re retiring and we want to leave the big city and this is such a wonderful little town. We’re thinking about moving here,’ don’t you know that just really, really, really makes me feel very proud to be from Laurel, Mississippi.”
Joseph Watkins, who co-owns Sweet Somethings Bakery on Central Avenue, also owns a bed and breakfast above the business.
“I’m almost at an 80% occupancy rate in my B&B and I have four suites,” Watkins said. “When I first opened it up, I was at about a 61% ... and we may hit the 90% right now. I mean, the way it’s booked, it’s been unbelievable.”
On the other end of the street, business is booming at Southern Antiques, a store for home interiors and gifts.
Owner Andrea Milham can remember when there was no foot traffic in town.
Now, one of her most popular items is a t-shirt with “Laurel” on it.
The show has also helped draw shoppers from surrounding areas such as Hattiesburg and Waynesboro, she said.
“The fire was already there, but this was definitely like dumping some gasoline on the fire of revitalizing downtown and all the new stores that were coming in and just the amount of traffic and people that you would see on any day down here was kind of incredible,” Milham said. “Coming to work and I couldn’t find a parking place...That was weird,” she said, laughing.
Milham said someone from Oregon recently purchased a house near hers from a real estate website.
“They never even came and looked at it. I mean, that’s kind of crazy!”
Since 2016, Laurel's sales tax revenue has increased by 5.8% and ad valorem property tax revenue has increased by 8%, according to city records.
“It’s been a win for everybody. I don’t think anybody can say that this show has negatively affected them,” Magee said.
The pride in Laurel is infectious.
“We’ve seen that ripple effect. You do a HGTV house and then somebody next door to them works on their house, somebody here works on theirs,” Magee said. “I think Laurel is going to be changed forever because of this show.”
The next hometown
The show is now seeking applications for a “Home Town Takeover” in a new location.
The creators are looking for communities with a population under 40,000, homes with great architecture and a main street in need of a facelift, according to the application website.
Meridian, Mississippi is among cities hoping to be selected. It will have some competition – Petal, Mississippi and towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma and New York plan to apply, the Hattiesburg American reported.
Mayor Magee's advice: Put on your best face and let the show's creators know you love your city.
Erin Kelly is a reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Miss.