HGTV stars: In Mississippi, lights sparked revitalization

Published 1:45 am Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The key to revitalizing a failing town could be found in simple changes, HGTV stars Jim and Mallorie Rasberry and Josh Nowell told a group in Opp Tuesday night.

The HGTV Home Town stars spoke at an event hosted by the Opp Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

Rasberry said that a simple light project made downtown Laurel, Miss., alive again.

“Some of you may not know what we are talking about when we say light project,” Rasberry said. “I’m talking about the ‘X’ pattern of lights above the streets in downtown. I know that you guys are in the works of that right now, and I want to tell you just how big of an impact that made in our town.”

He was speaking of lights similar to those lining the street between Milky Moo’s and Big Mike’s.

He said that Nowell copied the idea from an early 1930s Laurel, Miss., photograph.

“That exact same thing happened in downtown Laurel in the 30s,” Rasberry said. “These pictures starting popping up about them and then Josh came up to me and said that he had a crazy idea. He showed me this plan of a design he made where every street in downtown Laurel had these ‘X’ lights over them. At the time, it would have cost $25,000 to install. Especially for us, who were on a shoestring budget, it was a lot of money, but Josh was persistent on the idea. We had a couple fundraisers and events where the money went exactly for that expense.”

The major benefit of the lights, Rasberry said, was as soon as the lights went up in Laurel, there was a buzz around downtown.

“Everybody was now Instagramming, Facebooking and trying to take the best picture,” Rasberry said. “It’s like all of a sudden, all of these incredible pictures of downtown Laurel with the sun setting in the background, the lights on and they are just really good pictures. Since we post them everywhere, people start talking and asking what is going on downtown. All it took was some strung up lights to make people think that something good was going on downtown.”

Rasberry said that there were people in his community that had not been downtown in 19 years that came out for the first time when the lights came up.

“Believe it or not, I know that there are people in your community, like ours, that had not been downtown in 19 years,” Rasberry said. “There was just no reason for these people to go downtown. Unless you had to sue somebody or go downtown to check the mail, that was the only reason to go downtown. All of a sudden these lights start popping up and these pictures start popping up and there is a shift.”

He said that the one restaurant that was able to stay in business downtown started seeing new traffic.

“There was a family that was eating dinner at the restaurant at the time,” Rasberry said. “It was a mother and father and their two daughters that had moved away to Austin, Texas. They were having dinner and the daughters were starting to look around and see everything that was happening in downtown Laurel. One of the girls turned to her parents and said, ‘Why don’t you guys have a cookie dough shop? It works in Austin, why wouldn’t it work here?’ It is a change of mindset. Both daughters moved back to Laurel and opened a cookie dough shop because they wanted to move back home. We didn’t go out and recruit a cookie dough shop. It was the lighting project that created the buzz, that brought people downtown and started getting people to say, ‘Why not?’”