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Urban pioneers stake a claim in downtown rebound

By Staff
WALKING TOUR Bill Barham and his six-year-old daughter, Blake, left, and nieces visiting from Osaka, Japan, Emi Matano, 3, front, and Rika Matano, 6, go on a walk to see the different carousel horses. Barham and his family live in the Rosenbaum building downtown and he says they go on lots of walks together around the neighborhood. Photo by Carissa McCain / The Meridian Star
By Lynette Wilson / staff writer
Aug. 4, 2002
Bill Barham remembers when downtown Meridian bustled with people shopping in department stores, dining in restaurants and making a night of the theater.
Barham is an urban pioneer. He, his wife, Christine, and their two children moved to a condo in the Rosenbaum Building on Fifth Street two months ago.
Between Downtown Properties, The Rosenbaum Building and the Union Hotel there are 69 apartments downtown, occupied by mostly single, young professionals with urban sensibilities and the hope that someday soon downtown Meridian will rebound.
Like many urban centers two or three times Meridian's size, the 1960s and 1970s saw people abandon the city center. While architecturally unique buildings with detail and charm sat empty and on the verge of decay, people moved to planned, prefabricated housing subdivisions and apartment complexes, businesses moved to strip-malls with acres of parking and restaurants became associated with national chains.
Gone were the bright lights and pedestrian way of life.
But, all that's changing.
In the 90s, young people with an urban sensibility, much to the fear of their suburban parents, started to make their way back downtown.
In Meridian, too.
When the Navy moved Lt. David Reynolds to Meridian last December he moved to an apartment with 14 foot ceilings and hardwood floors on Front Street.
Reynolds said when he first moved to Front Street it was like a ghost town, but within six months shops opened, street lamps were installed and the potential was obvious.
He said, though, he'd like to see a coffee shop or a bar, some place to congregate.
A sentiment loudly echoed by Front Street resident Dan Garrison.
Garrison travels to Birmingham and Jackson weekly on business for Southern Wheel Technology and he said it's not too late for Meridian.
Garrison said he doesn't dislike Meridian, just the city planners who don't want to fix it up.
Meridian banker Allan Stewart, chairman of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation's Downtown Development Committee, said his committee is trying to support the efforts of everyone who wants to live and work downtown.
If you build it, will they come?
New Orleans-native Monica Graham moved Panach, her shoe and accessories store to the Rosenbaum Building.
Graham said to grow a small business you have to locate where there are people.
Downtown residents anxiously await the opening of two new restaurants, Montana's and Weidmann's, but Garrison said people who live downtown can't support businesses alone and that other people need to come down and explore.
Garrison said it's peaceful living downtown and the proximity of the police station adds a sense of safety, but he said he'd forgo peaceful to see people walking around.