When Kagan Coughlin and Alexe van Beuren first visited Water Valley, Mississippi a decade ago, the majority of the storefronts on the small town’s Main Street were empty.
But the couple was charmed by the people they met; inside an old soda fountain, a fourth-generation business owner made them a milkshake, chatted for half an hour, and hugged them when they left. They decided to move to town.
They became part of a small group of people who have helped rebuild Main Street. A former machine shop is now a brewery. A drugstore is an art gallery. A service station became a restaurant.
Coughlin and van Beuren bought an old department store and turned it into a grocery store, cafe, and apartments. They later bought five more vacant buildings, fully remodeled them, and leased them out to new local businesses. In 2016, they added a free coding school for local students to the former department store.
All of this is possible partly because real estate there is very affordable; old commercial or industrial buildings in need of a lot of work can go for as little as $10-$12 a square foot.
“The entry level price is pretty cheap,” says Mickey Howley, who bought an empty storefront with his wife in 2002, and turned it into an art gallery. “Here, if you want to do something creative, you can really get in on the ground floor and own a building . . . if you have a place where you can pay for it even if it’s not doing that great, you can push that creative direction a little bit more. It’s kind of economic freedom that these small towns still have.”
With enough people doing the same thing—a group of around 20, in a town of 3,350—the small downtown revitalized. About 30 historic commercial buildings, out of around 100, have been renovated…