Tucked between the interstate and the train tracks, the town of Meridian is growing out of its complicated past into a place of beauty. The resurgence in food, art, music, and community is welcoming and inspiring. Not only was I greeted on the platform by the local paper, I was welcomed into the homes and lives of multiple Meridian residents as if I had been a member of their community my whole life. Mississippi is a complicated place with a history detailed by its myriad of talented artists from all walks of life. Having been torched to the ground in the Civil War, left behind by companies sending industry overseas, and ignored by the metropolitan strongholds to the north and south, Meridian has spent the last 100 years fighting for its civil rights and development. Being there at a time where that work was starting to really pay off gave me hope for what the future of rural accessibility can be with the right kind of support.
People like Dede Mogollon, Director of Visit Meridian Tourism and Jerome Trahan, Marketing Director of the MAX who have returned home after learning life lessons in larger cities are changing the way the outside world sees the Delta. Talking with them as well as Mayor John Robert Smith about the importance of Meridian’s Intermodal Station equipped me to better face the reality of what lies ahead for myself, RPA and the communities in the Deep South that need our advocacy and support now more than ever.
Dede picked me up from the hotel my first night in town and took me to Harvest Grill. A new restaurant by local gem Marshall Gilmore. With a gorgeous patio and interior located in the walkable downtown, Chef Marshall has created a new feeling in an old space. Families, couples, and individuals all waved and called out to Dede as we made our way to dinner. A martini drinker after my own heart, Dede ordered both Lemon and Pomegranate Martinis for us to start as well as the Dressed House Chips, Salmon Crudo, and Crawfish au Gratin with baguette. As we snacked and talked, I grew to appreciate how Chef Marshall crafted classic food with clean presentation allowing flavors to speak for themselves. To me, the real standout item was the au Gratin. It was a flavor I had really been missing in my time outside of the south.
After dinner and drinks, we strolled around the block and took in a gorgeous sunset. While rounding the corner, the sounds coming from the Weidmann’s upstairs bar were too enticing to pass up. Lawyer by day, performer by night Aa’keela Hudnall served the crowd an array of bluesy covers and soulful takes on contemporary pop music. The upstairs bar has a balcony overlooking the downtown corridor and a fantastic deadly mojito. Again, the people of this town welcomed me with open arms asking when I planned to return. Despite the size of the town, Meridian fills up at night. There were 3 bands performing along the drag, every restaurant and bar had their open signs on, and the crowds were all a mix of different age groups and cultures in defiance of many stereotypes cast upon the south.
The next morning brought my re-return to Weidmann’s for brunch with Jerome Trahan of the MAX. A former Amtrak Marketing Director, he offered me sage advice and much needed humor for the trek ahead. His years on the rail and love for arts and humanities brought him home to help build support for the The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience. We shared Fried Green Tomatoes with 1870 sauce, Crawfish Benedict, and a housemade Bloody Mary before heading over to see what can not be classified as a museum, hall of fame, gallery, recording studio, or performance arts center, – the MAX transcends clear definition and blew away my expectations.
The culmination of brunch at Mississippi’s oldest restaurant and spending hours in it’s newest Experience filled my heart with inspiration, love, and a little cholesterol. Jerome took me through each section of the MAX and his enthusiasm for all things Mississippi was engaging and enriching. I have family ties to the state but this showed me the history through so many different interpretations and immersive experiences I felt the impact of the enrichment it will provide for future generations.
After the long day and long month of train travel, Jerome offered for me to join his family for blueberry dump cake and coffee back at their house. This gesture could not have come at a better time. The hardest part of being on the road for this long is that I haven’t done a lot of normal everyday things – like going to a friends house for coffee talk. His wife, daughter, dog, and kitten, welcomed me in and asked me all about the trip and what RPA is doing for Meridian. They applauded Mayor Smith’s station and verified that it has already changed so much for the downtown corridor and has improved job prospects in the tourism and hospitality industries ten fold.
The next morning I had time scheduled with John Robert Smith himself. A lifelong rail advocate, public servant, and committed member of the transportation community Mayor Smith offered me a wealth of wisdom during our early morning discussion.
Elected in 1989, he faced a number of staggering issues in his mayorship. Property values dropping, sales tax revenue was down, young people were leaving for larger cities, and the downtown left largely uninhabited.
“We desperately needed to make an abrupt change. We needed a win. We had lost our distinction and sense of place” He told me as I tried to wrap my head over how exactly one overcomes such strife.
His first strategic win was the Carmicheal grant opportunity for a multimodal transit center. Meridian applied and was awarded the grant to build the first multimodal station in Mississippi costing $7 million. With $1.3 mil raised by the city, the rest was awarded by the federal transportation enhancement program allocated to the state.
Norfolk Southern wanted $2mil in their initial negotiation, Mayor Smith closed for 0 dollars. The station demolished two redundant crossings in exchange for five blocks of property. The City was sued by a rail neigh-sayer twice. The suit claimed the proposed station wouldn’t create lasting revenue. As the short sighted opponent of rail lost, he had to pay all legal fees, and his lawyer, a former senator was disbarred for frivolous suit.
As progress continued, the Opera House was reconstructed, music scenes bloomed, and Meridian negotiated with Amtrak for Sela Ward to come down by rail and explore the improvement opportunity. This was followed by a Riley Foundation grant for full restoration of the Opera House. This allowed arts education to continue desegregation with Mississippi State acquiring control of the opera house to create stable safe spaces for continued education.
My first question was in regards to how we dismantle the stereotypes of the south:
“We’re gonna have to make different decisions if we’re gonna get different outcomes for the region. We can no longer place 45th – 50th, we have to punch above our weight. They expect us to be barefoot and ignorant, we have delivered so much more than that, we have commanded their attention. You never finish city building, we have to keep investing in the city as a living organism. The aspirating goals of your community have to be based on community art, public spaces, zoning, and activism”
When I asked him about the generational flight that plagues many small towns he replied candidly:
“Millennials are choosing the place they want to be, then finding the jobs to stay there. At any age, we have to be connected to the internet and we have to be engaged. Millennials want a downtown with a pop after 5 o’clock, but it must be authentic. We owe it to the next generation to build and improve the things we define as part of our culture.”
My follow up question was about the future of Meridian as a rail stop and how other towns can learn from their successes:
“When I was mayor, we worked with Brennan’s and the Saints to get tickets to the take the crescent, see a Saints game, and visit the restaurant. It was the best way of including our communities on the line. You could get tickets to our opera house, restaurants, and hotels as well. We needed ways to support each other’s communities and market our opportunities. If we continue on this route of not serving small towns via multimodal methods, we will see our rural communities suffer. We will see a depopulation of rural America in a way that fails our survival. While it is good to connect large metro areas, disrupting long distance routes says to small cities ‘you don’t matter, you’re too small, too rural’ that’s fundamentally untrue. The first act of the continental congress was to establish postal roads, that was the first push to connect our communities. There has been a federal obligation to this since the first day of the country”
My last question was how in this tumultuous time we can unify as people living in the States and use our cooperative powers for good:
“At a local level, it comes down to community dedication over bipartisanism. Members of congress understand the transit methods they use. They fly, they drive, if they don’t take the train and explore the rest of the system, they won’t understand why it is so important. We have to build networks that are good for Mississippi as well as New Jersey, we need representative uniformity in our support for accessibility”
“We have leaders that are not only denying climate change, they are propelling it. Both the boomers and millennials have to unify to combat the damage being done. We were the first city in Mississippi to go green. It’s about saving money for them just as much as it is about climate. We’d rather spend that money on fire and EMS than the power bill”