Sales tax, local tourism tax collections up in Laurel

Sales tax, local tourism tax collections up in Laurel

LAUREL, MS (WDAM) - More people are spending more money in Laurel in the first months of 2017 than they did during the same time in 2016, according to the Jones County Economic Development Authority.

"Sales tax and our local tourism levy on hotels and restaurants has been up each month this year compared to this time last year," said Larkin Simpson, vice president of the EDA. "These are strong indicators of how well we finished the last few months of last year and how well the first few months of this year have been."

Employees at Southern Kernels in downtown Laurel said a lot of traffic comes through the store.

"Weekends are packed out always," said JD Bilbo, a sales associate at the store. "Fridays, Saturdays. Typically at the beginning of the week too you see a lot of people coming to get it for the week."

The EDA does not keep data on the number of visitors who come into the city, but the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art does. Director George Bassi said the number of visitors to the museum is up 12 percent from 2016 and 35 percent from 2015.

"One of the most exciting things to see is we're finally getting noticed by the areas around us, by our neighbors, people who are passing on I-59," said Judi Holifield, executive director of Laurel Main Street. "It's something we've been working toward for 10 years."

Bilbo said people from out of town often stop by the store.

"It surprises me that the travelers actually make it to downtown and come through here, but yeah we see a lot of travelers," he said. "It's awesome."

Holifield said, "I grew up here, and I can remember when laurel was a bustling town. I can also remember when Laurel was a ghost town. I kind of have the view of the decades. I was here during urban renewal, and no one was downtown. When I came home and took this job, it was kind of that way. You pretty much knew everybody on the street, and it was the five people going to the bank and the post office. Had an office downtown, and maybe they had a business. Now, it's so great. You're on the street and people are looking up and looking around, and you know they're not from around here. You can say, 'Hey, can we help you find what you're looking for?'"

Along with years spent revitalizing downtown, Holifield and the EDA said new visitor interest comes from new attention. The HGTV series Home Town has made Laurel an attraction nationally, and intrigue is turning into into trips to the city and dollars spent.

"It's been really helpful for the nation really to see and to experience the hospitality that Mississippi has in their living rooms, and now they're actually coming and showing up on our streets," Simpson said. "They're getting to see it first hand."

Holifield said, "The Mercantile is a place people want to visit. I've been in there with people (saying), 'Hey we're on our way to New Orleans, and we just stopped by to see because we saw the show,' but they're shopping everywhere."

Bilbo agreed the show is bringing them to Laurel, but they are shopping and spending at stores and restaurants without a connection to it.

"I do feel like the show 'Home Town' is having a big effect on our business here," he said. "The best thing about being in downtown is that they can just walk straight down the strip, and go to Sweet Somethings. Then come here to Southern Kernels. Then go down to the convenience stores or the boutiques that down the way. I think that's really cool."

Holifield said she does not think Laurel has felt the full impact of Home Town on the city. She expects visitor traffic to increase throughout the summer as more episodes air.