Forgotten Main Street as affordable new frontier: Water Valley, Mississippi

Less than a decade ago, Water Valley, Mississippi was a forgotten small town: there were 18 empty storefronts lining it’s four-block Main Street and plenty of decaying homes for sale. Located only twenty miles from the University of Mississippi and the pricey town of Oxford (also former home to William Faulkner), it was well-placed for revival.

In 2002, Mickey Howley and his wife Ole Miss professor Annette Trefzer bought an $80,000 century-old home and one of those empty storefronts for $60,000. They were early pioneers in the effort to rehabilitate the old 19th Century railroad town- turning their former drugstore into the Bozarts art gallery, but it took the formation of a community to create real change.

“In the last seven years,” explained Howley- now director of the Water Valley Main Street Association – in 2015 to a White House meeting on rural placemaking, “and remember Water Valley is 3,500 people with a four-block long downtown, this team has been instrumental in bringing 88 new jobs to downtown. Adding 26 new businesses. Fixing buildings and I don’t just mean façade jobs, but major renovations in 29 buildings. Adding 14 upper floor apartments. In that new business mix we’ve added four new restaurants, three art galleries, one grocery store, one doctor’s office and one brewery.”

Howley calls it “reimagining” structures: a foundry is now a brewery, a service station is now a restaurant, a drugstore is now an art gallery and a department store is now a grocery store/school.

That grocery store/school is the BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery and the Base Camp Coding Academy, founded by Washington DC transplants and husband and wife team Kagan Coughlin and Alexe van Beuren. They moved to town in 2007 and soon after bought a 10,000-square-foot brick building on Main Street that was slated for demolition. After three years of renovations, they opened the grocery store and cafe and most recently the scholarship-only coding school, “designed to train students to be software developers in 12 months”.

A couple years ago, Coughlin left his 6-figure salary working in software at an Oxford company to focus full-time on reviving Main Street. He, and van Beuren, bought five more abandoned buildings (formerly the Blu-Buck Mercantile) and have rehabbed the storefronts which now house a furniture store, a chiropractor “a man who builds golfing simulators all over the country” and the second floor have been redone as apartments and a boutique hotel.

There are plenty of individual stories, but everyone we spoke to, point to the combined efforts of the residents as the true force for change. “To paraphrase poet William Butler Yeats,” wrote Howley in his speech to the White House group, “If the center cannot hold, things fall apart. We keep the center together. For all of us. We must have a strong core, a strong downtown for the whole town to be that great “good place.”

Bozarts Gallery
B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery
Base Camp Coding Academy
Turnage Drugstore
Yalobusha Brewing Company
National Main Street

Original story:

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  1. mamaknows
    May 12, 2017

    Good luck to you and hope your adventure is rewarding financially as it is in doing what you want and taking risk.  My father did this back in the 1950'60's. As you take on partners, and even employees no matter how much like family they are or seem, always keep your guard up. I say, love people, trust God. Money is just too tempting for most people. We did really well until we had to move from the area due to my mom's health and left his partners, and friends in charge. By end of 5 yrs or so, he had to close 2 of the business's and lost the other 3 to these unscrupulous greedy former friends, unbeknownst to him had been robbing the kitty for those years. So enjoy the journey and use wisdom and when it comes to money, spouses need to listen to each other. My mom had a 'feeling' about 2 of these individuals, but one took them both by surprise and caused such stress and sadness because he was loved like family. So enjoy the journey and listen to wisdom, which is way different than commonsense.

  2. Ill Clinton
    May 15, 2017

    19:07 ouch.

  3. no further west
    May 15, 2017

    There are many, many forgotten main streets all over America. Hopefully they can all be restored and reimagined. They are affordable and offer a character you can't find anywhere else. I'll bet this is a trend that picks up and continues a while.

  4. Nellie Vee
    May 22, 2017

    Bozarts. Did they dream up the name from "beaux-arts", the French expression for fine arts? Excellent video. I love everything I see in your videos, Kirsten.

  5. Gathering No Moss
    May 23, 2017

    Pity the people of Waller Valley. When the gentrification begins and academia moves in, prices skyrocket and rents become UN-affordable. Poor people don't want heirloom tomatoes and boutique milk – they NEED the low prices that Walmart might have brought to survive. As nice as that street looks, it's an exercise in yuppie narcissism.

  6. Barry Thompson
    May 23, 2017

    Great stuff!

  7. Damienn Kincross
    May 29, 2017

    Great video, just loved it.

  8. Fizzedup Slade
    May 31, 2017

    Great vid. Really enjoyed it. Thanks

  9. Lisa Kilmer
    June 13, 2017

    Charming story of a revived Main Street. I don't understand the negative posts. So what if these young people are yuppies or white? They are taking a chance on a street which would have been empty lots without them. The one fellow stated outright that if the businesses fail he hasn't lost much, but he has made an effort which is commendable. They are counting on the academic yuppies who are living there to "shop local". They are giving local farmers a place to sell their products. In what way are these things bad?

  10. Lisa Kilmer
    June 13, 2017

    Thanks for posting this! Lovely story of people pulling together and rebuilding a town. Some of our Midwest rust-belt towns are doing this or have been doing this to some extent (attracting small businesses, preventing big box stores, hosting events downtown), but this story is really inspiring. And yes, a key to reviving an urban space is to have a grocery store!

  11. Mona Taylor
    June 14, 2017

    12:20 is an epa nightmare. cool redo anyways

  12. TheDtfamu89
    June 18, 2017

    So, where I live groceries are expensive, but I can't believe folks are paying 9 dollars for a watermelon in a little town in Mississippi. I was a bit shocked by that.

  13. Orlando Paço
    June 22, 2017

    Realyrefreshing to know that people that have access to high paying "socialy" enroled high-pay still have this type of mind set! Intelegence is key.

  14. Brandon Wildfong
    June 30, 2017

    is there any room I really want to come I can do a lot of stuff I work in construction I would like a classic barber shop or a bycical shop or a little movie theater but would love it a nice cafe would be cool to I dream of this plase

  15. John Raisor
    July 2, 2017

    Even the small towns aren't safe from gentrification. Next video on Water Valley will be filled with hipsters sporting Handlebar mustaches, and skinny jeans.

  16. Craig Duddles
    July 4, 2017

    Love this video and what people with vision, risk tolerance and a commitment to community can do.

  17. Lucas Kerper
    July 23, 2017

    Thank you for the share! Great episode!

  18. Steven McGhee
    August 12, 2017

    argh I've missed the boat where I live. I saw it coming 10 years ago but didn't have the intestinal fortitude to pull the trigger and do it myself.

  19. tomtom2806
    August 15, 2017

    Nice place with human scale and very interesting stories!

    August 22, 2017

    This is art and a pioneer that knew what he wanted and did it his way… Not impeding on the community…creating life and giving space change and music a chance to survive for the next renaissanse

  21. altha 2014
    August 31, 2017

    was born in Clarksdale Miss. Lived in Walls. Timed to time. we never go the interstate unless we really have too. we go the back roads threw as many of these old towns as we can.

  22. AFFAN Azam
    September 4, 2017

    I love love love this video and the person who made it huge props to you . You did such an amazing job on this video

  23. Dani McD
    September 18, 2017

    Nice but small town people don't want French bistros.

  24. sailmonkey flying
    September 29, 2017

    The two gentlemen are geniuses. Good Ole American Innovation!

  25. Denise Severa
    October 2, 2017

    OMG I soooo want to live here!

  26. Arvid Rudling
    October 18, 2017

    There is a really hopeful message in this video, i wish the same kind of transformation can take place elsewhere, like in small-town Sweden. Some signs pointing to that. It’s different in all kinds of ways but the overarching story is eerily similar.

  27. Reb Dalmas
    November 19, 2017

    Realize that every time that dollar transfers hands it is taxed. Meaning a piece is taken from it, which leads to the real value of the dollar, reaching zero in the public side. It is a formula of robbery. If that dollar is creating value, with each interchange, where is that value going? It is like a tree producing seeds which is a form of value creation. Thus, where is that value creation going? Why is that value creation not flowing back to the people as the people choosing? How have ineffective " health care" systems been imposed on us? How have ineffective education systems been imposed on us, which we accepted? What we are doing is not working. It is a design, which means we can redesign.

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