Drawing people to downtown: Give them a reason

By Staff
Dec. 10, 2000
A caller who shall remain nameless for her own protection waited a few minutes too long Thursday evening to leave her office.
Huddled neck-deep in a bit of sensitive paperwork in a windowless office on the second floor of a building on 22nd Avenue, she simply lost track of time. When she left her building, she wondered why all the people were gathering on the sidewalks.
As she walked to her car, passing more people going in the direction opposite her own, it dawned on her n the Meridian Christmas parade, and bewilderment gave way to the sudden realization she wasn't going anywhere for a while.
People everywhere
When she got to her car, she found her usual exit from downtown blocked n not by a delivery truck, a fire or a gas line leak n but, surprise, surprise, by people, whole families, many with young children and strollers, a few pets, cars, pick-ups, vans, downtown, outside, after 5.
At first, she was livid. "I moved to Meridian to get away from people," she said. "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't even get out of the parking space. I thought, It's almost dark. What are all these people doing here? People never come downtown. What is this?'"
A parade indeed n with 186 units and said to be the largest in the state of Mississippi this year. Music, costumes, decorations, a bunch of dignitaries to shout "Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays" to, a Coke truck bigger than the million dollar "Jumbo-tron-a-thing" scoreboard up at Ole Miss and, of course, Santa.
She had stumbled into the largest Christmas parade of all time in this downtown. The staging area alone stretched for blocks and blocks.
But her comments bring up something that needs more public discussion.
Why are we surprised?
Why are we so surprised when we see people in downtown Meridian after 5 p.m.? Isn't this a real city?
Thoughtful people in our community have struggled for years, pondering the question, "Why don't more people come downtown."
After years of research, analyzing the work product of a few development commissions, not to mention the promises of a passel of politicians, you'd think we'd have the answer by now.
The plain fact is people need a reason to come downtown. A parade is one. Unfortunately, parades only happen on special occasions. What about the rest of the year?
Searching
People seem to be searching for entertainment options to enjoy after the work day has ended. If you include shopping in that general entertainment category, options in downtown after hours are limited, although businessmen such as Robert Loeb and Harry Mayer deserve our support for doing their part.
Giving people a reason to live downtown and affordable housing to do it in is another possibility, and a few hardy souls already do live in a handful of apartments on Front Street. But construction progress seems to be painfully slow on the more exclusive downtown condos.
Would a regular schedule of concerts give people enough reason to develop a downtown habit? How about another restaurant open late to help cater to hungry people just coming out of a play at the Grand Opera House? Montana's may help and, hopefully, the opera house will reach its revitalized potential. How about a historic district with themed restaurants and shops? Something for tourists to do.
Many fear Meridian has outsmarted itself by allowing its downtown to get downright inhospitable after the close of the regular business day. Maybe things will change. Maybe someone in a position of leadership n financial and political n will seize the opportunity and emerge as downtown's savior.
But the questions remain: When the results of census 2000 are in, and Meridian's population is down while, say, Philadelphia's is up, will it matter? Will we care? And, what will we do about it?
As for the caller, should she thank God she doesn't live in a real city?
Change of address
For all of you Internet communicators out there, here's a programming note. E-mail addresses of the editors and reporters you may want to reach here at The Star have changed. Just add the word "the," as in bbynum@themeridianstar.com.
There, now wasn't that easier than going to the post office?
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. E-mail him at bbynum@themeridianstar.com.

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