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Growing a Town

Feb. 28, 2012
 

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Candice Rawls Boatright

If you could build a town, what would you put there? What would it look like?
It sounds like a project for high school or college students: “Design the Town of the Future.” But really, it’s something most people will never get the opportunity to do; building towns is something our forefathers did. It just doesn’t really happen anymore.

Well, out at the corner of Highways 22 and 463 in Madison County, a town is being built. Or, rebuilt actually. A $73 million project to breathe new life into the Town of Livingston is underway. And for all intents and purposes, it started with a Farmer’s Market.

Developer David Landrum built his personal home on about a hundred acres near the intersection of Highways 22 and 463 — about a mile away from the old Town of Livingston site. His realtor gave him a brief history of the area, mentioning the once-thriving town. It was Madison County’s first county seat. It was home to the county’s first courthouse. In the 1830s it was booming.

But when the railroad came through, Livingston was bypassed, as stops were put in on either side of it in Canton and Flora. The town suffered, and eventually businesses went elsewhere.

Landrum walked the old town site. He saw 200-year-old cedar trees, old roadbeds and cisterns. And he found the natural springs — that had at one time made the town famous as a vacation area — still flowing into the nearby lake.

He was really taken with what he found there; roughly six months later, the land was put up for sale, and he jumped at the chance to restore the town to its former glory.

“This is some of the prettiest land in the county,” Landrum said. “It’s a beautiful setting, and we feel like we’re in the growth track of the county.”

About five years ago, Landrum and his partners purchased the 47-acre site. They spent about three years cleaning up the site, and about two years ago the team hired Leisha Pickering as its creative director. Historical Concepts, an architecture firm in Atlanta, Ga., was selected to resurrect the lost town.

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“What we see is a re-presenting of the Town of Livingston: a quaint old town square with buildings wrapping around it and 12-foot-deep balconies overlooking it,” Landrum said. “It’s going to be very authentic and will look like it was built in the 1800s.”

It’s about making the old new again; bringing residents back to a simpler time, when people sat and talked to each other for hours on end while kids played nearby. It’s about having a town and its residents that are a little more self-sustaining; living off the land in ways few people do anymore.

“We see this as an organic, earthy place,” Landrum said. “There are agricultural farms next to us raising grass-fed beef and lamb. Right now, we’re working on the Town of Livingston Gardens, where we’ll be growing produce. Fresh eggs, different types of produce, it’ll be grown right there in town.”

It’s fitting then that the real introduction of Livingston came in the form of a Farmer’s Market. Every Thursday night through the summer and fall last year people came from all over to purchase local produce and goods, watch a cooking demonstration, listen to live music, and reconnect.

“People came back week after week after week,” Pickering said. “What I enjoyed the most was watching people slowing down and talking to each other.

“You could come out for a couple of minutes and get some great vegetables, or you could come out for a couple of hours and visit with friends. That’s what we want the town to reflect.”

The Farmer’s Market will continue and will become almost a signature event for the town. It opens this year on May 3 on the old town square before moving to its permanent home, a pavilion, which will be one of the first structures completed and will serve as the unofficial center of the town.

Another structure being built is a 9,000-square-foot Mercantile Store, which will house a small restaurant and coffee shop as well as a section for goods produced by the Farmer’s Market vendors.

Other commercial buildings will follow soon after. The first three building pads — which are ready to go — will yield about 7,300 square feet of space. And they’re already pre-leased.

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“In a five-mile radius you’ve got about 5,000 rooftops,” Landrum said. “The problem is there are no amenities.

“The average household income out there is more than $100,000, and consumer spending was up over $200 million (in 2011), but they’re having to go somewhere else to spend it.”

In addition to the commercial space, there will also be more than 40 Charleston cottages located in the town. These will range from 1,800 to 2,200 square feet and will sell in the $300,000 range, Landrum said.

A chapel, a courthouse for events, restaurants, gift shops, office spaces, a doctor’s office, an inn and a spa are also planned. And you’ll see Mississippi in just about everything out there.

“It’s a big undertaking, to build something from the ground up, planning the streets,” Pickering said. “You can create something with just a lot of buildings, but we wanted to create something with a lot of personality. We wanted to build something that could be a gathering place.”

Local artisans are being incorporated into the work being done at Livingston. Pearl River Glass Company, for example, is making stained glass windows for the chapel.

“You’ll have living structures and living works of art throughout the town,” Pickering said.

Part of what attracted Pickering to the project was the opportunity to create jobs. She had several ideas for businesses but needed help getting them off the ground.

“So I said I would come and help them make the coolest town if they would help me get my cottage industries off the ground,” she said. “That was equally as important to me. We have so much poverty here.”

One of the first of such industries born out of Livingston is Musee, a line of hand-pressed bath balms made with all-natural ingredients. The bath balls were a hit at the Farmer’s Market and were recently picked up by about 80 stores across the country at the international gift market in Atlanta.

Her sons were inspired to join in. One began growing herbs to sell at the market; another crafted the perfect glass of lemonade, which has grown into Oh Brother Lemonade.

“Whatever the cottage industries are, we want them to go along with the town, which is all about natural, healthy living,” Pickering said. “It’s being done with great care. It’s something I think the entire community will be very proud of.”

These ideas of “nature” and “community” have become the theme of Livingston. Pickering envisions people gathering on park benches that will dot the town; she sees people from neighboring communities utilizing the horse and bike trails to come into town and pick up some eggs or milk. She hopes to incorporate Mississippi’s rich history in art, literature and music into the both the design and the activities of the town.

“We want to be a place of community, and community is about all kinds of people,” she said. “We want it to be a true town.

“Our every desire is that there’s a place for everyone. Maybe not everyone can live there, but we’ll offer opportunities for people to work there and form relationships there.”