It’s taken more than just some new paint and drywall to transform Downtown Baldwyn. Vision is just the start.
Publisher’s note: This story first appeared in the 2015-16 edition of Baldwyn Community & Life magazine. Some information, such as plans for businesses or store names, may have changed since then.
To hear some tell it, just a few years ago, Downtown Baldwyn was desolate. Shuttered storefronts gave only a hint of past glory for what was once the city’s main economic thoroughfare. Only a handful of businesses dotted the landscape, holding on to hope that a revival would come.
The revival came.
Through no small amount of sweat, blood, money and vision, Downtown Baldwyn is not only in the midst of a revival; it’s flourishing. By the end of 2015 there were approximately 40 storefronts along Main Street and the side connector streets downtown. Of those buildings only six were vacant, with two of those six being in the middle of renovation. Two others are slated for renovation in the near future.
This adds up to a business district that is thriving in spite of weakness in the national economy. The journey to this current state of affairs has stretched more than two decades and taken the efforts of numerous people who shared a primary goal: restore the town they love and give new hope to its future.
In the beginning
Baldwyn’s downtown renovation began back in the mid 1990s, when Earl Stone bought his first buildings, 101 and 103 West Main, and remodeled them. Later, efforts to revive the downtown sector received a boost when Baldwyn-native Jim Davis acquired several buildings and began renovating them for new use. The crown jewel of his efforts was The Old Post Office building, which Davis converted into a fine dining destination that drew people to town from many miles away. Davis, then a leader in the Stanford Financial Group, poured money into fixing up buildings in town and financing new businesses. Among those were The Old Post Office Restaurant, an antiques and fine furniture store, and an art gallery. Davis had acquired other buildings, too, with plans for further development.
All seemed to be going well until 2009, when the Stanford Financial Group collapsed following a federal investigation alleging the company was operating a Ponzi scheme with investors’ money. All of a sudden, the cash pipeline into the rejuvenation of Downtown Baldwyn dried up, and the future was uncertain for what would come of the dreams Davis once had.
Ultimately, after being tied up in legal proceedings, Davis’ buildings went up for auction. Stone bid on some of the buildings and won them. However, he didn’t immediately have a plan or vision for rejuvenation, and he certainly didn’t know then what Downtown would look like now. In his words, the restoration of Downtown “just happened.”
“I really didn’t think about fixing them to start with,” Stone said. “I figured I would just sell them.”
However, Stone’s son, Gary, who “enjoys that sort of thing,” as Earl said, got the ball rolling on fixing the buildings. Although Earl said it’s difficult, almost impossible even, to make money renovating and fixing up old buildings like this, Gary’s desire and vision fit in with Earl’s own wishes: to see Baldwyn come alive again.
“I’ve always wanted Baldwyn to come back,” Stone said. “It was getting pretty run down there at one time.”
Some of Stone’s renovation work includes what is now the Blonde Pistol Boutique. In its early days the building was home to People’s Bank, a Piggly Wiggly store and later, Haddon Palmer’s Pool Room. Stone recalls spending time in the pool room. He bought the building and restored it in 1995.
The latest of Stone’s projects, Blue August, was completed in the spring of 2015. The event facility was formerly the home of Kirk Hardware. When Stone and his crew began to work on the building, they had to contend with a mess.
“After I got the building, I didn’t know what to do really because it was so bad,” Stone said. “We had to go from the bottom all the way to the top renovating it.”
The facility now is one of the region’s most elegant and desirable meeting halls, complete with rooms in the basement for changing.
Stone, though, is happy to share credit where credit is due. Clark Richey, owner of Quail Ridge Engineering in Baldwyn, has also taken up the mantle of restoration in his hometown, and Earl Stone appreciates that.
“Clark’s done a great job with it. He’s still doing it. He’s done more building than I have, I think,” Stone said. “I’m really proud of him. He’s obviously got a lot of interest in Baldwyn, and he’s gotten a lot done.”
Dedicated to details
Restoring a historic building, be it residential or commercial, takes time and a significant amount of attention to detail in order to do it well.
Restoring a building that is historic, while following the guidelines of the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program, administered by the National Park Service (NPS), is an entirely different animal.
Welcome to Stuart Cockrell’s life.
Cockrell, who works for Richey, has been in charge of a significant portion of the renovation work downtown. The buildings he has been working on have each been developed with a specific business in mind, all the while following strict guidelines set forth by the NPS to maintain as much of the original look and feel of these historic buildings as possible. That is a challenge in itself, but the fact that the buildings must also meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards – while maintaining that look . . . you begin to see what Richey and Cockrell have been up against.
Richey’s crew has been most recently working on 104 and 106 West Main Street. When completed, plans are for the space to house a 1930s-era hamburger shop, with the original soda fountain from Tom’s Drug Store as its centerpiece. Even the restoration of the ice cream and soda fountain is proving to be a challenge.
“There is a company in Chicago, the only one in the country who restores these, and we’re getting everything from them to restore it,” Cockrell said.
Tables will be spread out in the space for diners, and the soda fountain will be in the back. Along the walls, Cockrell said custom-built cabinets will house some of the collection of history from the late Simon Spight, who was the chief historian in Baldwyn.
“It’ll have a lot of Baldwyn memorabilia,” Cockrell said. “We’ll display some of the old literature, pictures and signs (from Spight’s collection). It’ll be sort of like Borrum’s (Soda Fountain Drug Store) in Corinth.”
Cockrell said the goal is for the soda fountain and restaurant to generate enough revenue to support the housing and display of the history collection. That was the plan from the start for this space, as, Cockrell said, the building needed a purpose before it was restored because, “nobody needs a shotgun building anymore.”
Upstairs, the buildings will feature apartments.
Renovating these buildings, though, has taken longer than anticipated primarily because of the aforementioned requirements by the NPS.
“We’re putting ADA bathrooms in here (106 West Main). The bathrooms that were in here were rotted out,” Cockrell said of work on what will be the home of the diner. “There was one wall, and they (NPS) allowed us to put that wall back because we have pictures of that one wall there. They are definitely stringent on how everything has to be.”
Restoring a historic building to the standards of the NPS’ incentive program is a series of starts and stops, Cockrell said. Photos and documentation must be submitted of the structure at each stage of construction, from when it’s first considered for renovation to what it looks like when it is stripped down, and then when it’s being built back up.
“If they don’t approve of something we’re going to do, they send us a letter detailing it and we have to change our plans and resubmit them,” Cockrell said. “It lengthens the time of the project, but it also helps get it back to what it was, more like what it historically would have been.”
Along the way, progress must be submitted to the program’s overseers, who approve the plans to continue or issue requirements for change to adhere to strict historical renovation standards.
Cockrell’s journey in working to restore the downtown started with 108 West Main Street (home of Little Light of Mine and an upstairs apartment), and then proceeded with the Claude Gentry Theatre at 110 West Main. Not all of Richey’s projects have followed NPS requirements because they would have prohibited or prevented the intended use of the building, such as with 110 West Main. Cockrell said that building was renovated and designed specifically to be a theater. Anyone who has attended a play or presentation there or had lunch or dinner at Lula Lee’s Restaurant (now in 2018 home to Fill My Cup) can attest to the quality of the restoration jobs.
All told, Richey and Cockrell have been instrumental in the renovation of probably half the buildings along Main Street.
“It’s going to take a year or a little longer (total) on each one of these buildings, top to bottom,” Cockrell said of the rebuilding effort.
What does the future hold?
There is still work to be done in Downtown Baldwyn and the surrounding area, but the bulk of the restoration is complete and civic pride is growing. Redevelopment has even spread off Main Street as other businesses have expanded and renovated, such as the collection of businesses owned by Susan Barker on Prentiss Street. Barker has created a mini-mall type feel with her buildings, which house financial, clothing and gifts stores.
Another sign the restoration of Downtown has had the desired effect: There are many times when it’s difficult to find a parking space on the main drag. While drivers might not be thrilled with this, it suits Earl Stone just fine. It shows his dream of seeing Baldwyn become a booming town again is coming to fruition.
“It’s a great little town,” Stone said. “It ought to be good for the future for people coming through here, and I think it will.”
Clark Richey agrees. For him, he’s thankful he’s getting the chance to play his part.
“I’ve been blessed by God to be able to do some positive things,” Richey said. “I love my hometown and my friends, and so I use whatever I have available to try make our home a better place, really to try and make it a great place, better than anyone could ever conceive. Because that’s the way God operates with us.”