The Nesbit community's old downtown "is just sitting there," a cluster of forlorn, empty or under-used buildings, says DeSoto Supervisor Lee Caldwell. Yet she envisions a future where the area can be an up-and-coming, humming hub of commerce.
Tools and success stories for such turnarounds were major topics of the International Conference of Shopping Centers Mississippi P3 Regional Program and Governmental Relations gathering Wednesday in Hernando. The theme was "Infill -- Filling the Gaps."
The statewide meeting at 1 Memphis Street drew more than 60 community development and planning officials, business people, and city, state and county leaders including Caldwell and Mayors Darren Musselwhite of Southaven and Patti Denison of Walls.
"It's very productive," said Caldwell of the conference, which focused on retail revitalization projects, including those involving Brownfields assistance and Mississippi Redevelopment Tax Incentives.
"We want to take what we have and clean it up and re-use it," said the supervisor. "Our old downtown in Nesbit is just waiting for something like these projects we're hearing about. Right now, these buildings aren't generating any kind of sales tax, but if they can be revitalized, it means new jobs as well as sustainable businesses."
A session on creating new economic opportunities and recruiting businesses pointed to the challenge of creative use of resources and smart growth initiatives. Mark Castleberry, President of Castle Properties, developer of The Mill conference center at Mississippi State University in Starkville, stressed collaborative efforts by public-private partnerships.
The Mill, which includes an upscale courtyard hotel, restaurants and parking garage, re-purposed an aging cotton mill that dates to 1902, closed in 1960 and later purchased by MSU to house the campus physical plant. The Mill land is owned by MSU; the city leases the property from the university; and Castle Properties operates the facility.
The project "took a property with no tax generation to one with a significant impact in the community," said Castleberry. Getting it rolling involved combining several vehicles, he said, listing Community Development Block Grants, TIF (Tax Increment Financing), New Market Tax Credits, Mississippi Historic Tax Credits and National Historic Tax Credits.
A regional example of a major retail adaptive re-use project is the big, bustling Ponce City Market in Atlanta, said Castleberry, with dozens of shops, flats, offices and a central food hall now occupying a long-empty retail distribution building.
Another session, on Brownfields and breweries, aired ways of "tapping into new ideas for redevelopment." Across the country, craft breweries are expanding, and in Mississippi proposed legislation would allow such breweries to sell a limited amount of product on-site to visitors.
"This would promote tourism, and just get more people through our doors, expanding our sales and marketing potential," said Lucas Simmons, Part Owner and Brewmaster with Lucky Town Brewing Co. in Jackson.
Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson, as leader of the conference's host city, welcomed attendees and gave an overview of the city's success with federal Brownfields grants.
Last year, Hernando was selected to receive its second $400,000 Brownfields Assessment grant from the EPA, aimed at recycling vacant and abandoned properties for new, productive re-uses. The city received its first such grant about five years ago, with the Reliable Equipment property among the Brownfields sites assessed.
Johnson said filling a city's fallow spaces can be sound redevelopment through the Brownfields approach.
"You might see a couple empty buildings and than a vacant lot, and people would have a bad feeling that the buildings are tainted somehow, and not want to locate a business there," said the mayor. "But if we can get that building environmentally assessed and cleaned up and occupied as a functioning business, then it's contributing to the tax base, providing jobs and services, and that's good for the city and the community."
Another positive aspect of in-fill, said Johnson, is that it's a cost-effective means of economic growth where there's just "an empty hole."
"The street in front of that building is already there with traffic, there's already sewer and water service and electricity, there's police driving by and fire protection, so it just makes good sense," said the mayor.
The conference drew good reviews from Musselwhite.
"Revitalization is huge for every city," said the Southaven mayor. "There are some great ideas here."
Henry Bailey is Contributing Writer and Copy Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 662-429-6397, Ext. 241.