QUITMAN — Digging its way out of some financial hits over the last 20 years, the town of Quitman is showing some growth; retail sales taxes are up and if the mayor has his wish, it will continue to grow while keeping its small town charm.
Mayor Eddie Fulton just began his second term and he enthusiastically talks up the town of about 2,300 residents, noting that it has many assets and opportunities.
Quitman is the county seat of Clarke County and is about 25 miles south of Meridian off of U.S. 45.
In the 1990s, two textile mills and a lumber mill closed, putting a total of about 3,000 people out of work.
"We almost went under," Fulton said. "That nearly killed us."
Quitman is slowly making its way back and Fulton has a lot of ideas about bringing that about. He and the Board of Alderman are considering a comprehensive plan that would include zoning regulations to help manage growth and keep the beauty of the town.
"It's so important to do your zoning so you can manage your growth," Fulton said. "If we can adopt a comprehensive plan, we can plan the growth so we don't become something that looks like every other city. We want to maintain the small city ambience."
A sign of progress, according to Fulton, is when Food Tiger recently changed to a Cash Saver grocery store which quadrupled the store's sales. A new Dollar General store opened recently and a McDonald's Restaurant is scheduled to be constructed. Those are important to Quitman, but something just as vital to the town's success, Fulton said, is its independent, family-owned businesses that line the streets of downtown.
He pointed to the example of businessman Robert Donald, a State Farm agent who makes it a practice to pick up litter from the street and sidewalk near his office. Donald, a lifelong resident of Quitman, is also a former member of the Board of Aldermen. He said he's never really wanted to live anywhere else.
"My great-grandfather lived here," Donald said. "When he came home from the Civil War, he ran for sheriff. He was sheriff for two terms. We've been here ever since."
Donald enjoys the small town atmosphere.
"We have friendly people. You know everybody," Donald said.
The closeness of the community, Fulton said, motivates businesses to offer their best, such as J&B Athletics, which sells sporting goods and prepares uniforms for local teams. Marcia Mosley, sales associate, said not all sporting good stores offer their services.
J&B Athletics has been in business about 10 years, and is located in what was formerly the Long-Bell Store. They never miss a team deadline, she said.
"We stay as long as it takes. We work in shifts if we have to," Mosley said. "We cut it, we heat press it, we embroider it and we screen print it. It all gets done right here in this facility."
That means a lot to kids who play on teams, Fulton said.
"The uniform is everything to a child. It elevates their status, and it makes them feel part of the team," he said.
Down the street at Majure's Jewelry and Gifts, Steve Majure still runs the store that his parents opened in 1951. His late father was a watchmaker who grew the business over the years.
"Our parents moved to Quitman and started this business and got married all in one week," Majure said. His sister, Joette Majure Smith is a teacher but she also works at the store part of the time.
Majure recalled the years when job layoffs hit the town. His family's business was able to stay open because of the service they offered.
"We are very service-oriented. People come just for our service and hopefully they come for other things too," Majure said. "That keeps us going."
Pearline McDyess, owner of Pearl's Fashions, opened her store a little over a year ago. McDyess said she opened her store after seeing a need for it in Quitman and she felt that God was leading her to go forward with it.
"Even though we've been going through a recession," McDyess said, "I went ahead with it."
Her store sells wedding, formal wear, causal wear, jewelry, but their biggest seller is hair. This is her first time to own a business but she thought she would take a chance. So far it has been a success, she said.
"It's a friendly town, friendly people, it's a good place to own a business," McDyess said. "I like to help people look good because that helps make them feel good."
John Bernhard has been in the printing business in Quitman since 1988, but he says his trade is quickly becoming a thing of the past. It's not a matter of job loss in the community but of changing technology.
"Used to, if you went to the bank for a loan, you'd fill out four or five forms. There would be anything from to to five parts. You'd get a coupon book and you'd get a bunch of self-addressed envelopes," Bernhard said. "You'd have correspondence going back and forth. We printed all that. It was our bread and butter. Those days are gone. "Schools don't even have report cards anymore. People have self-contained printing operations in colleges and places like that. You can take somebody off the street and in three days, they are a printer."
At Simply Irresistible Gift Shop, Theresa Hamrick said she and her sisters opened the store about nine years ago.
"We started out as a gift shop and just in the last two years we decided to regroup and we went to kind of boutique-y clothing," Hamrick said. "We still have a line of candles that we have had since we first opened. We have jewelry, purses, wallets, shoes, cowboy boots. It's just fun here."
The store draws customers from surrounding areas as well as in town, and they have a large mail-out business, she said.
Businesswoman Ruth Mason fell in love with a downtown building and moved her antique shop there in December. Ruth's Attic is in the 110 years-old building that was once the J.K. Kirkland Hardware building.
"They were two weeks from tearing this building down," Mason said.
At the time she purchased the building, it was caving in, in places. It took a few months, but she had repairs ready by the time she moved in.
"I just love this old building. I was sort of inspired by the structure of it. It still had a lot of good construction quality to it, these posts and beams were interesting."
There are still some vacant buildings downtown, but Fulton hopes to fill those up soon as potential tenants make plans. The historic railroad depot has been repaired and is used as a Chamber of Commerce office, Fulton said.
The area's natural resources are a big draw to Quitman, Fulton said.
"There are 225,000 to 250,000 people who travel to or through Quitman each year to visit either the Archusa Creek Water Park or the Clarkco State Park."
Visitors and locals also enjoy the Chickasawhay River just south of Quitman.
He wants visitors to see a clean, beautiful town when they arrive and he hopes to have additional housing to attract more residents to the town. Fulton said 98 percent of the housing in Quitman was built before 1999. Fulton is also working on improving city parks, promoting Quitman Country Club's 18-hole Cedar Creek Golf Course, and encouraging business owners to spruce up their buildings to make the town more attractive.
Quitman is now among Mississippi towns and cities that are considered health-care zones.
"I can incentivize developers to come in here and put people to work in health care," Fulton said. "Any time you add doctors, you add millions in revenue."
While industry is no longer as prevalent in Quitman as 20 or 30 years ago, there is still a presence. About 20 percent of the jobs there are in manufacturing. Dart Container makes food service containers for businesses all over the U.S. and BTH Quitman makes wood pellets that can be used instead of coal products. A longtime business in the city's industrial park, Fleming Bookbinders, has been there since 1970.
A 2009 report by the Mississippi Development Authority advised that with service related jobs representing about 80 percent of employment, the town's best bet in moving forward is to create jobs in the service related fields of arts, entertainment, recreation, and food and beverage.
On the subject of food, beverage and entertainment, there is at least one restaurant in town that offers all three — although not the type of entertainment one might expect. Matt Skidmore, owner of Skidmore's Restaurant, is known for at times being something of a curmudgeon to his regulars, who joke about ordering one thing and then getting something else.
It's all done in good fun, according to Fulton, who said the food is good enough to offset Skidmore's demeanor.
"The customer is never right. I get the final word," Skidmore said. "I don't come out here and talk until they aggravate me enough to get me out here. Somebody I don't know I don't treat that way."
Skidmore enjoys seeing the reaction of newcomers.
"It's funny to watch somebody that's from out of town come in because they really don't know how to take what goes on in here," he said. "I've walked out before and just put the plate on the table and said, 'There it is.'"
His customers wouldn't have any other way.