The home improvement show first aired in 2016 with Ben and Erin Napier renovating locals’ houses. In the years since, they’ve made the town of Laurel a star.
By Beth DeCarbo | Photographs by Akasha Rabut for The Wall Street Journal
Tourists exploring Laurel, Miss., typically start with Laurel Mercantile Co., the Scotsman General Store & Woodshop and the Scent Library candle shop, retail stores owned by HGTV stars Ben and Erin Napier. The Napiers have helped transform the town into Mississippi’s “Mayberry,” showcased on their program “Home Town.”
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. “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.”
But other businesses have attracted guests, too, and some have made guest appearances on “Home Town.” Popular eateries include Café La Fleur, which features Cajun and Creole fare, and tourists flock to Pearl’s Diner for Southern staples.
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.
Laurel wasn’t always so lovable. In the mid-2000s, surrounded by crumbling and shuttered buildings, a handful of local government and civic leaders 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.
Mississippi Department of Archives and History/Wikimedia Commons
In 2008, the Napiers—fresh out of college and newly married—moved back. (It’s Erin’s hometown.) Downtown Laurel was dead. “When we moved back, there was one coffee shop and one restaurant that was open only for lunch,” Ben Napier recalls. Erin adds: “Other than that, there were a few professional services like lawyers and a lot of shuttered buildings.”
They and others became involved in redevelopment efforts downtown, which many consider a turning point in the city’s rebirth. 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.
Meggan Haller/The Washington Post/Getty
A producer from HGTV spotted Erin’s buzzy social media 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, books, branded merchandise and licensing agreements. Today, they say, their “Laurel footprint” employs 80 to 100 people, including retail sales and ventures, warehouse jobs, back-office operations, graphic design and social media.
The Napiers’ businesses get the most attention, but everyone benefits, says Caroline Burks, executive director of Laurel Main Street. “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.”
The town has helped businesses to take advantage of the new attention, says Burks, who also owns Guild and Gentry, an upscale men’s apparel store and barbershop. “We try to be a resource to business and building owners, helping with things like licenses and building permits.”
However, attracting diverse business owners downtown has proved difficult, says Mayor Magee. In August, he 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, says salon owner Eboni Shepard.
Shepard’s salon actually opened in January, but she wanted her clients to get accustomed to visiting downtown. “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.
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 acknowledges that “we have a segregated history,” noting that an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan once owned a small business in Laurel. “Negative impressions are hard to dispel, and perceptions may remain,” he says.
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.
To Magee, the biggest challenge is attracting more people to move to Laurel, not just visit. The city currently has about 17,000 residents and has been shrinking since 1960, when the census tallied 28,000 residents. And Laurel’s subpar school district may make it difficult to attract families with young children.
The overall decline is one shared by many small towns across America. Improving schools is just one part of the solution, Magee says. “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. 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.”
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Produced by: Matthew Riva
Photo Editor: Jonathan Simon
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