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Laurel investing in downtown again

For more than 30 years, downtown Laurel has tried to reinvent itself.

Urban renewal in the 1970s attempted to create a “mall” in the center of downtown to keep customers and businesses.

Huge concrete canopies were placed over downtown streets. Some streets were closed to traffic or were made one way, but as customers left, so did businesses. The canopies came down a dozen years ago, but people and commercial development did not follow.

“Over the last 30 years, we’ve done just about everything wrong, but with good intentions,” downtown businessman Danny Rasberry said. “We want guidelines.”

Now, Rasberry and other downtown leaders, along with city and economic development officials, are looking at joining the National Main Street program, which emphasizes economic development and historic preservation.

Couple that with the tax credits allowed under the Gulf Opportunity Zone — a federal program that provides incentives for post-Hurricane Katrina development — and Rasberry said it’s the perfect time to revitalize the downtown.

“We are crazy not to invest in the downtown right now,” he said.

Rasberry, who owns two buildings on Magnolia Street, recently bought the old Deposit Guaranty bank building on Central Avenue.

He will move his three financial services companies, operating as Gulf States Marketing, from their Magnolia Street location to the upper floors of the four-story bank building.

“We’re looking at a retail business for the lower floors, and it will probably be a restaurant,” Rasberry said.

He said he is looking at creating apartments on the second and third floors with retail businesses on the first floors of his Magnolia Street buildings.

The federal government is allowing developers a 26 percent tax credit for those who buy and restore historic buildings in downtown areas, and the state is giving an additional 25 percent tax credit to people looking to bring business downtown.

Doyle Webb, who owns Burton’s Jewelers, will use the Go Zone tax incentives for his new building, but said the tax breaks are not why he’s putting his efforts into downtown Laurel.

Webb worked for the jewelry company nearly 20 years before buying the business five years ago, and bought the Burton building in January.

“I think the Main Street program would be great for the city,” Webb said. “We are going to do everything we can to make the downtown survive. Any improvement is better than what we have now.”

Economic development officials say there’s no way to know how many companies are taking advantage of the Go Zone incentives.

“We’ve made presentations to several companies,” said Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County.

“I know several companies are using the bonus depreciation and five companies are looking at expansions or new ventures.”

Meantime, a group of Laurel residents will meet with National Main Street officials in Washington soon.

“We need to rebuild our character and our history,” Rasberry said. “The downtown is the core of the city, and we are going to develop a place for a rebirth.”