Downtown Grenada is experiencing a renaissance. The historic Grenada square and surrounding areas were once home to many vacant, abandoned buildings. But after several large investments in the past few years, the area is emerging from despair. With a new aesthetic and energy, downtown Grenada could soon become a tourist destination.
Before its recent transformation, the square was almost desolate when residents decided to move their businesses into neighborhoods off the interstate. Due to lack of traffic and business, many downtown stores and offices closed or changed location, leaving the square nearly lifeless.
“Though we had strengths, [the possible investors’ voices] and repeated views were that no one would bring an employer with jobs to offer to a place that had so little self respect that it abandoned its downtown,” said Deborah Bailey. “With almost every merchant gone and buildings already in disrepair… something had to be done.”
Bailey, 64, was the catalyst in Grenada’s transformation. She was an outsider, coming from New York City after a long career on Wall Street at Drexel Burnham Lambert, an investment-banking firm. Bailey moved to Grenada after marrying Coley Bailey, a native of Yalobusha County. Upon arrival, Bailey noticed multiple potential attractive qualities of Grenada that were being underutilized and unnoticed.
Bailey had a vision for Grenada. “Imagine a downtown offering a couple of live music venues, three or four excellent restaurants, a cluster of resale stores… artists and galleries and other specialty retail plus professional office and residential apartments… not far fetched at all,” she said “In fact, it is happening. Add our remarkable location between Jackson and Memphis, Oxford and Greenville, the Delta and the Hills. Add in our civil rights and Civil War and other colorful history, and Grenada comes alive.”
Despite skepticism and risk, Bailey defied odds, and her vision became reality. In 2007, she made her first purchase: a building she renovated that became a part of the Economic Development District. Then with her retirement savings, she purchased 10 buildings and decided to get to work. The plans for these buildings included reception venues, offices, lofts, studios, restaurants and more.
Bailey’s investment is difficult to ignore. The square is now teeming with businesses and events. Live music from wedding receptions often floods the streets. Lights twinkle on top of the pavilion. Aromas seep from the different restaurants. Until Bailey’s investment and intervention, these vivacious qualities were strangers to downtown Grenada.
“The downtown area is under a really vibrant mode at the moment with considerable personal investment in buildings that have been vacant for a long time,” said Gary Worsham. “I believe there are only three or four buildings left downtown that are for sale within the immediate square area.”
Serving as the executive director of the Grenada Tourism Center, Worsham took this position after working at Regions Bank for 44 years. Despite having only been the executive director for around 16 months, he has seen many changes happen in Grenada, particularly in the downtown area. He said the investment that has been made in the city’s downtown has positively affected tourism and locals.
“It helps people that have lived here a long time rediscover an area they already know,” he said. “It encourages people that have been here forever and invites people from out of town to take a second look at an area they maybe overlooked in the past.” He believes this second look is likely what inspired others to invest.
Bethany McRee, a Grenada native and owner of Engagements Bridal and Formal Wear, followed Bailey. McRee got involved in the bridal industry after designing and selling jewelry in college. After renting multiple other smaller buildings, Engagements now occupies the historic downtown building, formerly known as the Grenada Post Office.
After functioning as the Post Office, the building became home to Grenada local Jan Walton and her family. Walton, an Extension Agent III with Mississippi State University, bought the historic building from the city in 1996 and lived there for 21 years.
“This will always be the home that I cherish the most during my adult years and the childhood of my only daughter,” she said.
Walton sold the historic Post Office in 2017. “I could not be happier that the McRee family bought this lovely piece of history for the location of Engagements,” Walton said.
Still, Walton has a special relationship with the building, as her daughter, Katie Beth, was the first bridal customer in the new location, which was once her home.
Engagements was outgrowing its old location, and McRee had a new vision for her business, aiming to provide a higher-end atmosphere for her customers, especially brides. After seeing the development of the downtown area, McRee became interested in the area. She wanted a specific ambiance for Engagements, and she believed the Post Office could eventually provide the special charm.
Despite the outward beauty and uniqueness, extreme renovations to the Post Office were necessary. McRee restored its high ceilings, installed the original windows, replaced the roof, and refurbished the floors. The Post Office’s transformation has been remarkable.
Now, the interior is open with crisp white walls and chandeliers dangling from the ceilings. There is a stage for customers to model their dresses, as plentiful lighting brings attention to the dress’ details. The wide original windows effectively serve as dress displays, capturing the attention of passing traffic.
The response to Engagement’s move has been overwhelmingly positive. “The only people that have preconceived notions about what the area is and is not are just local people,” McRee said. “The vast majority of our customers are from out of town. To them, our downtown is great.”
The positive response is correlated with sales, as Engagements has seen significant increases in the past year.
“It was very stressful. It still is stressful,” McRee said. “But knowing what I know now, I would definitely say we made the right decision…It’s a beautiful space, and to me, it’s just complimentary of what we sell. We are a higher-end store. The surroundings definitely add value to the products.”
McRee, along with others like Bailey, have decided to take a chance on Grenada’s new downtown area. To learn more about Bailey and the changes occurring in Grenada, watch the video at http://www.msmuseumart.org/index.php/blog/entry/deborah-bailey-mapping-a-modern-ms.