Meet Jim and Mallorie Rasberry and Josh Nowell, founders of Downtown Comeback, a story inspired by their own hometown of Laurel, Mississippi's historic comeback.
In 2015, a once in a lifetime opportunity launched for the city of Laurel: Home Town, a TV show on HGTV that highlighted the city's rebirth and the revitalization of historic homes through the work of the show hosts, Erin and Ben Napier. But it was the community revitalization project that began eight years earlier that tells the story of three couples working to help transform the town's historic downtown and residential district. The movement to save a city that viewers get to see in each episode of Home Town is 100% authentic to what was happening in Laurel before the show was ever a reality... and that's what makes the story of Laurel and Home Town even more special.
The Rasberrys, Nowells, and Napiers are more than just best friends, family, cast members of HGTV's Home Town and business partners... they all share a passion for historic preservation and small town revitalization. That passion was instilled in them from an early age, but didn’t come to reality until they all moved back to Laurel after college and began the journey of bringing pride back to downtown.
“In 2006, I opened the doors to my investment business in downtown Laurel. It wasn’t anything like the stories my dad had told me from when he was growing up. The downtown I had moved into was dead. Businesses had closed and buildings had been forgotten. I knew we had to do something,” recalls Jim Rasberry.
It all really started off for them shortly after college when each couple purchased a building in downtown Laurel. Being newly married entrepreneurs, they were looking for the most affordable option in terms of housing and office space, while also still investing in the city. Now, when they think back on it, they all get a pretty good laugh - how crazy it is that they could buy an entire building for the same price or less than a starter home!
They renovated each of their lofts apartments and business offices and they became some of the first people living and working in downtown. In fact, at that time, there were only about five occupied lofts in downtown - fast forward to today, there are around 35 lofts with waiting lists. Living downtown also made them even more inspired to invest in their small town and bring Laurel back to her former glory- so that’s exactly what they did, but it wasn’t just them. There were a core group of downtown hopefuls that knew something needed to change if their hometown of Laurel, MS would ever be as successful as we were all hoping for. Laurel Main Street was created in 2007 and became the blueprint that everyone could rally behind to make an organized difference.
"For us, the fact that we chose to live in Laurel meant that we didn't have a choice when it came to improving our city. It was important for our new families that our time and resources be spent for our place as much as they were spent for our businesses. I mean, we do the same thing for our homes, so why wouldn't we do it for our entire city? Sometimes people think that in order to be a success in business, you have to sacrifice time volunteering to build your community. We discovered that there doesn't have to be separation between business success and town success. The two are intertwined and support one another. In fact, if you look at successful entrepreneurs, it is often difficult to tell if their city made them or if they made their city. " -Josh Nowell
"One of the hardest things we had to do in the beginning was bringing pride back to our community. Before we could even think about telling anyone else about what we loved about Laurel, we had to get the local folks to believe in and be proud of their own community again. We did this by re-branding the downtown district - new logos, new signage (all designed by Erin), hosting events and various beautification projects....but the most powerful thing we did was as simple as just speaking positively about the downtown area as often as possible. Through social media, at lunch, at church, in line at the grocery store...we started changing the perception of downtown, one conversation at a time. Positivity is a powerful thing." -Mallorie Rasberry
Since the start of Laurel Main Street in 2007, Laurel has launched several successful projects including events like our Loblolly Festival, Chili Cook-off, Wine Down Downtown (and many more) as well as our downtown lighting project, park projects and mural initiatives just to name a few. The Rasberrys, Nowells, and Napiers still remain very involved in Laurel Main Street and its continued growth.
After moving back to Laurel over 12 years ago, they have collectively restored over 60,000 sq.ft of commercial space, over 40 historic homes, recruited and retained over 20 businesses, operate 3 retail stores, secured and manage a national furniture line - all while having their individual small businesses, raising families and serving the community through various volunteer organizations.
The three of them jumped at the opportunity when Main Street America asked Josh, Mal and Jim to tell their story on the main stage of the 2018 national conference. From that event with Main Street America, Downtown Comeback became a rallying cry for rural America. The three have traveled across the country telling their story and inspiring other small towns to start their own comeback story. In 2018, a partnership with Touchstone Energy led to a national campaign to bring pride and people back to rural America.
Jim, Mallorie and Josh are now getting the opportunity to travel across America to share Laurel’s comeback story with hundreds of communities in rural, American small-towns. What has happened in Laurel is possible anywhere and that’s what Jim, Mallorie, and Josh want to share with other small towns. Their goal is to offer a blueprint to small towns wanting to write their own comeback story.
“We are seeing that Laurel's story of rebirth is providing motivation and hope for other small towns and rural communities all across the United States. Our hope is that the other towns see themselves in our story. We aren’t your traditional economic development consultants and I think that's what folks appreciate the most....we’re just real people that are passionate about our small town and stood up to make a difference.... and that’s exactly what it takes."
If you're passionate about your small town and are ready to see it change let Jim, Mallorie, and Josh help your town develop it's very own comeback story. Visit Downtown Comeback for more information.
As part of the partnership with Touchstone Energy, the Downtown Comeback team is happy to announce their involvement in an exciting contest available to rural communities served by electric co-ops! Touchstone Energy is inviting member cooperatives from across the country to submit proposals for planning and implementation guidance to help spur community development and economic growth. Now it is time for rural America to embrace and celebrate that small towns have big plans, too. Click here to learn more!