A small city in the spotlight is working on a plan to maintain tourism draws after the camera crews dissipate.
In 2016, husband and wife team Ben and Erin Napier premiered the HGTV restoration and revitalization show “Home Town.” It garnered a nationwide audience and engendered two short-lived spin-offs. In the beginning, the location of their hometown – where the renovations took place – wasn’t highly advertised, but now that it is, the city of Laurel, Miss., is making changes to the way it integrates tourism into its hopes of long-term future growth.
“We are reaping great benefits from ‘Home Town’ being filmed in Laurel,” Mayor Johnny Magee said. “We realized that one day it’s going to come to an end, and we wanted to be able to have something to keep people coming to Laurel.”
The first thing Magee and the city council realized was that in order to keep people coming, they needed to promote the municipality of 20,000.
Laurel’s Tourism Committee consists of six volunteer members with voting power and two advisory members – one from the economic development authority and the other from the Main Street committee. The committee, Magee said, has been one of the most important parts in the process of growing tourism in the city.
“Find a group of people that agree on the major goal. Our major goal was to continue to bring people to our city,” Magee said. “And find a small group, because groups that are too large don’t tend to function very well. Find some people who really want to see something happen in their city and put them together. We’re still amazed at all the ideas that come up.”
To finance the budding tourism industry, they went to the Mississippi Legislature to ask for an increased tax on hotels and short-term rental properties. The state already had a tax on hotels and restaurants that is used to pay off recreational debts like a sports complex, but it offered them more than the additional 3% they asked for – if they could get 60% of citizens in the state to vote in favor. They did, at a whopping 73%.
“The good thing about it is, it’s paid for by people outside of the community,” Magee said. “If you don’t stay in a hotel or short-term rental, then you don’t pay this tax, so the people in the city don’t have to pay it. We just reap the benefits of the people who come to the city.”
Before the show started, Laurel didn’t have a lot of short-term rentals. “We had bed-and-breakfasts, but now we’ve got a lot of Airbnbs,” Magee said.
The city set a budget of $250,000 for the year. Since November, when the tax was implemented, it has averaged $25,000 in income from it per month.
“We’re still pushing the ‘Home Town’ show, but we’re also adding things as we go along to keep people coming,” Magee said. So far, billboards have been purchased for the northern and western state lines, and Laurel has begun offering sponsorships for events that bring visitors to town overnight.
Funds from the tax go to the city, but the city council gives the tourism committee decision-making power on how to spend the money. Sponsorships are capped at $2,500, with stipulations that the event should draw people to the city and encourage them to spend the night in the city. One of the events the city opted to sponsor was April’s Downtown Crawfest.
In addition, real estate and sales taxes are increasing for the city due to people moving into the community.
“When people come to Laurel, they find there are a lot of genuine and friendly people here,” Magee said. “There are a lot of people who love this city and who would do anything for it, and people from outside of the community soon find that out. They will ask, ‘Are Ben and Erin as nice as they act like on the show?’ It’s hard to believe sometimes, but they really are that down-to-earth kind of people who would sit on the porch, drink tea and wave at you as you walk by. That’s the culture of the city of Laurel.”
The tourism committee has begun rebranding the city with all-new identifiable and uniform logos.
“We have a national audience, and when the show is aired, our branding will appear on the show,” Magee said. In recent years, even the city’s water tower has been presented to viewers.
“We have a lot of tour busses coming now because of the show, but we want to hopefully be able to draw people because of something besides the show,” Magee said. “We have one of the best historic districts in the southeast. The timber barons who came to Laurel in the 1800s to cut a lot of yellow pine that was in the area, they brought their culture and their education, and it made a difference in Laurel. The homes that they built are a part of our great and well-known historic districts.”
At one point, Laurel was known as the Yellow Pine Capital of the World. “We are able to put that out there for people to see because of these tourism dollars that we’re able to generate,” Magee said.