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Business News/ News / How a Reality TV Show Rescued a Small Mississippi Town
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How a Reality TV Show Rescued a Small Mississippi Town


Before Erin and Ben Napier moved to Laurel, downtown was dead. Now, stores have opened, unemployment is down and property values are up.

Ben and Erin Napier, stars of “Home Town”Premium
Ben and Erin Napier, stars of “Home Town”

As the hot-pink stretch Hummer winds through the streets of Laurel, Miss., the tour guide inside points out notable homes. “Ben built a swing out of whiskey barrels" for this house, he says. “Ben jumped into the swimming pool" at this house. And “this house is where they found the recipe for Miss Dot’s poundcake."

In 45 minutes, the guide showcases the city and homes made famous by Erin Napier and Ben Napier, stars of HGTV’s “Home Town" renovation show. Launched in 2016, the series typically shows how Ben’s construction and woodworking skills and Erin’s eye for interior design can transform inexpensive-and-dilapidated houses into homey-but-trendy Southern gems.

In addition to the Napiers, the show touts a third star: downtown Laurel. Today, thousands of tourists come to Mississippi’s “Mayberry" every year to see the people, places and events showcased on “Home Town." As a result, most of the downtown storefronts are now occupied or being restored. The unemployment rate sits at 4%, down from 7.1% in 2016. Revenue from both sales taxes and tourism taxes far exceeds 2016 numbers, and residential property values are increasing.

“Everything happening positive now is a direct result of that show," says Laurel’s third-term mayor, Johnny Magee. “As the show progressed, we saw lines outside our restaurants, people walking the streets again. It has been an amazing thing. People are coming from all over the country hoping to catch a glimpse of Ben and Erin in town."

Still, the Napiers and civic leaders agree that challenges remain. The school district lags well behind others in the state, and major infrastructure-improvement projects are needed. And at least two businesses renovated and featured on “Home Town" have closed, underscoring the economic realities of owning a small business.

Down in the dumps

Laurel hasn’t always been this lovable. “When I first came on the council [in 1997], there was nothing going on downtown," says Magee. “You could shoot a shotgun down Central Avenue and not hit anybody."

Surrounded by crumbling and shuttered buildings, a handful of local government and civic leaders in the mid-2000s championed change. Laurel Main Street, a consortium of local businesses, was formed in 2007 with a mission to revitalize a city once home to thriving timber and textile industries, brick manufacturing and other enterprises. In 2008, the Napiers—fresh out of college and newly married—moved back to Laurel, Erin’s hometown. The couple lived in a small apartment downtown, where they say the only other residents were friends Jim and Mallorie Rasberry and Josh and Emily Nowell. (Jim Rasberry is also Erin’s cousin.)

By all accounts, downtown Laurel wasn’t dying. It was dead. “When we moved back, there was one coffee shop and one restaurant that was open only for lunch," Ben Napier, 40 years old, recalls. Erin Napier, 38, adds: “Other than that, there were a few professional services like lawyers and a lot of shuttered buildings."

In time, the three couples became involved in redevelopment and restoration efforts downtown, which many consider a turning point in the city’s rebirth. “The effort by younger people got downtown growing again," Magee says.

By 2011, the Napiers had purchased and renovated a 1925 Craftsman home, and its interiors were featured in a national lifestyle magazine and on Instagram. Erin Napier was also posting buzzy photos of herself and Ben on social media, praising the appeal of small-town living. She also showcased her design work, such as mock-up murals for downtown buildings and samples of her bespoke wedding stationery.

A producer from HGTV spotted her posts and contacted the Napiers with an idea for a home-renovation show. Since the 2016 premiere, the show has featured renovations of over 100 homes—a number of which are now short-term rentals.

The couple’s success grew exponentially, with a business portfolio that now includes spinoff HGTV shows and an array of books, branded merchandise and licensing agreements.

A strong revival

Laurel’s fortunes have grown as well. Last year, the city collected a record high $10.64 million in sales taxes, up from $8.64 million in 2016, according to the mayor’s office. Another tax on sales at restaurants and hotels collected $2.26 million in 2022, compared with $1.46 million in 2016. And a new tax on hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and short-term rentals implemented in September 2022 generates about $30,000 a month for the city. Money from the new tax aims to promote tourism, including a new welcome center that is scheduled to open in October or November.

Tourists typically start with the Napiers’ retail stores: Laurel Mercantile Co., the Scotsman General Store & Woodshop and the Scent Library candle shop. But other stores have made guest appearances on “Home Town." Shug’s Cookie Dough & Candy Bar features baked goods and novelties like wax candy fangs. Peddlers’ Junktion, an antiques store, offers a sprawling array of vintage items, jewelry and one-of-a-kind pieces, such as a floor lamp made out of a parking meter.

Popular eateries include Café La Fleur, which features Cajun and Creole fare, such as muffuletta sandwiches and beer-battered catfish. Tourists flock to Pearl’s Diner for the ribs, fried chicken and other Southern staples. On the outskirts of town is David’s Grocery, a gas station-grocery store-hardware store-restaurant that earns raves for its boiled shrimp and fried okra.

The town has helped businesses to take advantage of the new attention, says Caroline Burks, executive director of Laurel Main Street. “We try to be a resource to business and building owners, helping with things like licenses and building permits," says Burks, who owns Guild and Gentry, an upscale men’s apparel store and barbershop.

Separately, part of the money raised from certain events, such as the annual chili cook-off, funds two grant programs for building owners to make improvements. The city also undertakes infrastructure improvements, for things like transportation, drainage projects and an expansive sports complex, much of it funded by state and federal grants.

The Napiers say the city and community leaders offered invaluable support when they started their businesses. Today, they say, their “Laurel footprint" employs 80 to 100 people, including retail sales, warehouse jobs, back-office operations, graphic design, social media and their latest venture, a factory that produces butcher-block countertops and cutting boards.

The Napiers’ businesses get the most attention, but everyone benefits, Burks says. “Yes, most people who come here are coming to the Mercantile, Scotsman, Scent Library," she says. “But all ships rise at high tide. Tourists are eating at our restaurants, visiting our shops. The show has been great about highlighting what’s going on downtown and what else is here."

Not all rosy

While the outlook remains positive, challenges remain. Laurel’s subpar school district may make it difficult to attract families with young children. For the past two years, the six schools that comprise the Laurel School District received an overall “C" grade in the Mississippi Statewide Accountability Report Card. Individually, Laurel High School moved up from a “C" to a “B" in the state’s latest report, an improvement that the mayor, Magee, considers encouraging. In the 2018, 2019 and 2021 reports, the district got an “F" grade. (The state didn’t release a grade in 2020 because of disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic.)

Attracting diverse business owners downtown has also proved difficult, adds Magee. In August, the mayor and Burks attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Black-owned hair salon called Bella Locs Studio. About 40 to 50 people came to celebrate and enjoy loaded potato skins, hot wings and lemonade, says salon owner Eboni Shepard. The event was also broadcast live on Facebook—including the moment when Shepard cut the ribbon. “It felt great," she says.

Shepard’s salon actually opened in January, but she wanted her clients to become accustomed to visiting downtown Laurel before she held the August ribbon-cutting. “I don’t feel uncomfortable being a Black woman downtown, but a lot of my African-American clients haven’t been downtown in years," she says. “That’s why I waited. I wanted my clients to be comfortable coming somewhere that’s predominantly white."

So far, Shepard says she has about 200 clients and has helped three young women get their braiding licenses, a state requirement. Nonetheless, she wishes more business resources were available for entrepreneurial women and people of color. “I want to bridge the gap and let my people know that we belong, too," she says.

Mayor Magee, himself African-American, acknowledges that “we have a segregated history," noting that an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Samuel H. Bowers Jr. (1924-2006), once owned a small business in Laurel. “Negative impressions are hard to dispel, and perceptions may remain," he says. “But, no, I don’t feel that people of color should feel uncomfortable downtown. One of the most popular businesses in Laurel is Pearl’s Diner—with lines going outside the building. I believe that Bella Locs will be very successful."

Filling up the town

To him, the biggest challenge is attracting more people to move to Laurel, not just visit there. The city currently has about 17,000 residents and has been shrinking since 1960, when the census tallied 28,000 residents. It is a decline shared by many small towns across America. Improving schools is just one part of the solution, Magee says. “We are a city that has an aging infrastructure. The water and sewer system, the roads, they need to be greatly improved. You need to serve the people who live in Laurel," which is 65.8% Black or African-American, according to July 2022 census data.

The median list price of a single-family home in Laurel has nearly doubled since 2016, from $119,000 to $236,000 today, a analysis found. But property values vary across neighborhoods. “We have people who live in homes that couldn’t afford [the renovations] to be on ‘Home Town,’ " Magee says. “My vision is for them to live in a comfortable home that is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I want to improve quality of life in housing situations."

Increasing the industrial base in Jones County, Miss., where Laurel is a county seat, will help create new jobs, increase wages and draw more families to the area, says Chris Tullos, director of the Jones County Chamber of Commerce. To that end, the Economic Development Authority offers various tax exemptions to major employers. While these efforts fall outside the scope of “Home Town," they illustrate how small towns that focus on small business can thrive.

“You don’t need an HGTV or ‘Home Town’ to be successful," Ben Napier says. “Does it help? Absolutely. But there are plenty of successful towns that have done it on their own."

Beth DeCarbo is a writer in South Carolina. She can be reached at

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