The heartbeat of downtown is strong

Published 10:50 pm Friday, June 15, 2012

Tuesday night found us driving laps around the Square in Oxford, Miss., looking for a prized parking spot so we could have dinner.

Three or six laps later, a spot opened up and we whipped in, happy to get out and stretch our legs.

As we strolled the sidewalks we listened to the voices of friends gathered on balconies for drinks or dinner, laughing and telling stories. We studied the menus posted in the windows: barbecue or diner fare? All-American menu selections or Southern favorites? White tablecloths or casual and funky?

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We settled on an Italian eatery, eager to try the homemade pizzas, but it was something outside the restaurant that stopped me. Two drink coolers were propped on a table outside the door, filled with ice water and lemons. Paper drinking cups were stacked alongside, free for the taking.

The idea? Offering a cool drink to the scores of people walking around the Square on a warm summer evening. No gimmicks. No gotchas. Just bit of customer service and Southern hospitality … on a Tuesday night. “We need to do that in Troy,” I thought, making a note to bring the idea back home.

As we ate dinner, our conversation turned to Troy, Alabama. It was a natural evolution and the comparisons were easy. Twenty-five years ago, Oxford was a small college town with a growing university. The Square was home to lawyers and a drugstore, banks, a handful of restaurants, a dry cleaner and a few shops, including a cornerstone retailer. We college students visited it, but we migrated to only a few places, some off the beaten path.

Now, the student population at the university has doubled and the downtown is bustling with retailers and restaurants, lawyers’ offices and government offices. The downtown business area spreads several blocks down the side streets, where bakeries and sandwich shops share sidewalks with art galleries and downtown residential developments. With dozens of restaurants and businesses along the busy highways in town, the Square and downtown Oxford beckon. College students sit side-by-side with tourists and locals. The community has solidified its identity as a university town, complete with a thriving arts culture and grounded in the history of the community and its university.

And Troy? Aren’t we at the same place?

For more than 125 years, Troy University has been foundational in our community’s development. Years before Troy Normal School opened its doors, we’d begun to develop our identity. Today, we talk about the town-and-gown relationship that is integral to everything from our infrastructure to commerce. And we’re continuing to grow and refine our identity.

A couple of years ago, a group of commerce and government folks took an informal fact-finding trip to Oxford. I remember talking with some of them after they returned and asking why they choose Oxford. It’s a good comparison, they said. The school isn’t too big; the town isn’t either. And both Oxford and Troy share a love of history, a commitment to their unique identities and a desire to grow in “smart” ways. Those folks had a long list of ideas – from how to landscape the downtown to working to establish outside dining spaces in the Square and developing downtown residential offerings.

Those ideas have long since grown and been developed, as the Chamber’s downtown development committees and volunteers continue to forge ahead with a vision: surveys to help establish and expand a historic district, new restaurants and retailers joining our long-established favorites on the Square; plans to enhance and improve landscaping and seating … and the list goes on.

Sitting at that table in Oxford this week, I found myself bragging about Troy and our downtown development, eager to talk about the charms and allure of our Court Square. Each project, each new business brings a new dynamic, new possibilities.

Adam Drinkwater, Chamber leader and businessman, said one time that the downtown is like the heartbeat of the community. I thought about those words that Tuesday night in Oxford and smiled, knowing that our heartbeat is growing stronger by the day.

Stacy G. Graning is publisher of The Messenger. Contact her at