The rebirth of Laurel, Mississippi, is proof of what real people can do with a little creativity, a lot of commitment, and a deep well of love

By Danielle Claro
January 10, 2020
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As you approach downtown Laurel from I-59, the first thing that you see is a massive mural. On the broad side of a brick building, in old-timey type, it sends out a “Welcome!” and signals that you’ve found the historic district of this small Mississippi town. The message is so beautifully rendered, in warm colors with exquisite workmanship, that it tells you all you need to know: Somebody loves this place.

But it didn’t always seem that way. Once a thriving logging community and cultural hub, Laurel gradually fell into disrepair. By the 1990s, its downtown was mostly abandoned, with businesses shuttered and buildings crumbling. Then, in the last decade or so, a grassroots movement began. The residents of Laurel pulled together to transform the small town they called home. And the beautiful mural on the side of a once-dilapidated building? Well, it’s a sign of the times. “It was kind of fake it till you make it,” says Erin Napier. “It was about sparking curiosity, getting people to say, ‘Oh, something’s going on here—I wonder what it is.’ ”

You might recognize Erin and her husband, Ben—two of Laurel’s biggest champions—­from their HGTV makeover show Home Town. With their business partners, Erin and Ben have renovated 50 homes in and near Laurel. But around 2008, when they and some friends moved into rough lofts in town, the outlook was bleak.

“When we all came home from college—Mallorie and Jim Rasberry, Emily and Josh Nowell, Ben, and me—we were the only people who lived downtown,” Erin remembers. “It was just us and the feral cats. For the six of us, all in our twenties, it was like a game: How can we make downtown Laurel feel alive again?”

Jim, Erin’s cousin, became one of the founders of the group Laurel Main Street. “We all did what we could,” Erin says. “Josh had done some real estate development. He had a bird’s-eye view. Ben and I were the storytellers. I would take photos of a corner downtown that people might overlook. I kept a journal online, and I mocked up some murals in Photoshop. We put some lights in the trees and had these potluck parties and invited our friends from Hattiesburg. We were just like, ‘Yeah, Laurel’s a cool place—you didn’t know?’ ”

Left: Judi Holifield has served as the Laurel Main Street executive director since 2011. She’s also referred to as the “unsung hero” of downtown’s transformation. | Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: The Laurel Mercantile Co. team, from left: Ben & Erin Napier, Josh & Emily Nowell, Jim & Mallorie Rasberry | Photo: Cedric Angeles

The Napiers and their friends were not the only ones making headway here. Nearly everyone you talk to in Laurel points to Judi Holifield as a powerful agent of change in the community. A longtime resident, she is executive director of Laurel Main Street. “She’s a force,” says Erin. “I mean, we were just kids, but Judi knew how to get grants and really make things happen.”

“Laurel is personal to me,” says Holifield, who was born here and has lived close by nearly all her life. “I did some work for the Laurel Retail Merchants Association in the seventies. I watched the town die and saw the people try to save it.” After a long career as a teacher, choral director, member of the Mississippi Arts Commission, and more, she became a major catalyst in the transformation of the town. But as with the Napiers and their friends, you might not know it from talking to her. Everyone here gives credit to everyone else. It’s part of the magic of this place, where a devoted mayor, Johnny Magee, and a bevy of inspired citizens live their deep commitment. People are investing in their town—not to garner attention or elevate property values but simply to make Laurel better because this is where they want to stay and work and enjoy life.

As Erin explains, every single person is important to the renaissance of this town: “You need the accountants and the lawyers to make sure grants are done properly, and you need the preachers and the teachers who can gather volunteers from the churches and schools.” Laurel is packed tight with people like that—community members who care and who use their unique skills to help make a difference.

In the window of a shop on Magnolia Street is the message “Bloom where you’re planted.” Here are just a handful of the locals who are living that motto—and bringing back this extraordinary yet ordinary town.

Mayor Johnny Magee

He leads a Laurel that’s worlds away from the town of his childhood memories

Mayor Johnny Magee with his longtime barber, Richard Brown, owner of Hair World
Cedric Angeles

“When my daughter graduated high school, she said she was going to leave. That was one of the things that propelled me to get into city government: I didn’t want younger residents to say, ‘I don’t want to stay here.’ I do everything I can now to help people know that they can stay here and make a living, be comfortable, and be happy. I invite people to do workshops on homeownership, and I tell them where I came from to show them how much Laurel has changed. I was born at the South Mississippi State Hospital, known by most people as the charity hospital. I grew up in a community called the KC in a three-room shotgun house. We didn’t have hot water. Right across the street from City Hall used to be the Pinehurst Hotel. When I was growing up, I could go by that hotel and look in the window at the coffee shop, but I couldn’t walk in. I could go to the Woolworth and buy anything I wanted, but I still couldn’t sit at the lunch counter. The location of that shotgun house I grew up in was 401 South Cooks Avenue. The address of City Hall is also 401. I get emotional about it. Laurel has changed, and I’d like for people to know that.”

Pearl Campbell

The owner of Pearl’s Diner dishes out homegrown hospitality

Left: Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: Photo: Cedric Angeles

“I graduated from Oak Park High School here in Laurel in 1966. My grandmother owned a restaurant, and because I was the oldest grandchild and a girl, she always had me around. That is where I became interested in cooking. After being gone from Laurel for 34 years, I decided to return in 2015. When I got back, I said, ‘All my friends are gone, deceased—what am I gonna do?’ And my father said, ‘You’re still healthy, you love to cook, and you’ve got a passion for dealing with people. So I want you to go out and spread the goodness.’ It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve got about 18 or 20 on my staff. Miss Pearl can be businesslike, but they know I’m fair and I love them. We opened in 2017, and now there are very few days you can come in here that we don’t have a full house.”

Rodney Rowell

He’s keeping a century-old business alive

He’s keeping a century-old business alive
Cedric Angeles

“My mother was working at Lott Furniture Co. for 12 years before I was born. Reuben Lott actually had 11 Mr. Lott stores around the state, but he had no heirs, so he sold his stores to the employees. As each person would retire, their stock would get bought by the other employees. My mother had been here for so long that after a period of time, she owned all the stock. I got involved after college. I always said I’d never work here, but then the girl I was going to marry was here (she came in to help my mother in 1983), my family was here, and downtown Laurel was starting to die. So I stayed. The business hung on in those years somehow. We used to have trucks that went out and sold door-to-door till about 1995. Things change, and we adapted. But there was a time in the 1990s when I felt like this was the only retail store downtown. The real catalyst here happened a little over eight years ago, when Judi Holifield became the director of Laurel Main Street. She brought together all the people of downtown to get to know each other and become friends. Five years ago, there were maybe four or five businesses represented in our Laurel Main Street meetings. Now there are probably 40.”

Jamie Suggs & Joseph Watkins

They’re redefining home sweet home

Left: Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: Photo: Cedric Angeles

“I was born and raised in Ellisville, about 15 minutes from here. Laurel was the big city for us. In 2010, I started a bakery out of a 10- by 14-foot building beside our house. I wasn’t a businessperson; I’m just a mom. We have seven kids and 10 grandbabies, with another on the way. My husband, Joseph, would deliver before and after work and all weekend. Most of our clientele were doctors’ offices, real estate agents, and banks in Laurel. We had a dream to move the bakery downtown and redo an old building, so we started looking around. We bought this place in 2015 and began renovations (Joseph is a contractor). Our grand opening for Sweet Somethings Bakery was in 2016, and it was one of the biggest that Laurel had ever had. I think everybody was just so excited about downtown.”

Nece & James Hill

The Agape Church founders foster community beyond their walls

Cedric Angeles

“I was the first generation in my family who was not born here. My wife, Nece, and I would visit from California each summer. Every time we would come home to see our family, we’d drive around and look at houses and land. Something was pulling us back here. We thought we’d be in our sixties before that really happened, but in 2009 it became pretty clear that it was time for us to make a change and this was the place. We knew exactly what we were called here to do. Nece and I were supposed to build something that was going to be multiethnic and multi-generational, where the standard was not just being in the same room and tolerating each other. We were going to go to the deep places together; we were going to genuinely love people.”

Bonnie McConkey

A newcomer finds her people in an unexpected place

Cedric Angeles

“I’d been in Denver, Colorado, most of my adult life (though I grew up on a big farm in South Dakota). My son is there, and my daughter-in-law, who’s like my best friend. So it was really hard to even entertain the idea of doing something else, but I was in a high-pressure management job and beginning to deal with some ageism, kind of getting squeezed out. I just thought, ‘Man, I need to do something different.’ I started doing research into all these different places. I’m an HGTV junkie, so one night I was hunched over my computer, and here came a new TV show, Home Town—first season, first episode. And I went, ‘Wow, I must go there!’ I actually said it out loud. I’ve always had this idea that true community comes down to one thing: Is there somebody who can take you to get your cataracts removed when the time comes? That’s my measure. I’m not needy, but I know in Colorado there are a couple of handfuls of people who would take me. So I was in Laurel visiting and was in a restaurant chatting with the family who runs it. I explained my cataracts theory, and this woman behind the counter looked at me and said, ‘I’ll take you.’ And the man next to her said, ‘She’s too busy. I’ll take you.’ I went to my car in tears, and I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’m moving here.’ ”

Where to Eat

Have coffee and sticky buns at Sweet Somethings Bakery. (Breakfast is included for guests of their B&B upstairs.)

Order the fried chicken with three sides at Pearl’s Diner.

Cedric Angeles

Stock up on artisanal beef jerky and homemade fudge at The Knight Butcher.

Head to The Loft for dinner, and sit in the garden if the weather is nice.

Left: Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: Photo: Cedric Angeles

Where to Visit

Get a straight-razor shave from Jeremy Williams, the barber in the back of men’s-clothing shop Guild & Gentry. (Book online—he stays busy!)

Left: Photo: Cedric Angeles
Center: Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: Photo: Cedric Angeles

Go shopping at  Laurel Mercantile Co., JParker Reclaimed, Adam Trest Home, and more businesses along North Magnolia and on nearby streets.

Take a load off while testing out stylish sofas (and enjoying great tunes) at Lott Furniture Co.

Left: Lauren Rogers Museum of Art | Photo: Cedric Angeles
Right: Rogers-Green House | Photo: Cedric Angeles

Stroll through the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, and catch a glimpse of gorgeous architecture on the walk over, including City Hall and the Arabian Theatre.

Where to Stay

Spend the night at Laurel Cottages, an Airbnb just a few blocks from downtown that’s run by Mallorie and Jim Rasberry. Stay at Bonnie’s Laurel Cottage, a super-friendly place owned by Bonnie McConkey (it’s about five minutes from downtown). In the center of town, book a spacious room with soaring ceilings above Sweet Somethings Bakery.