“What if we go home to Laurel and totally change it?”
This is the question Erin Napier asked her husband, Ben, before their HGTV series Home Town earned bragging rights as the most watched pilot in HGTV history. On the show, the couple renovates old houses in their hometown of Laurel, while preserving the town’s historic essence. Home Town airs Tuesday nights on HGTV.
The pair of Ole Miss graduates turned TV hosts spoke during a Thursday morning session at the Mississippi Economic Council’s 68th Annual Meeting held at downtown Jackson’s Convention Complex.
“This is so much fun,” Erin Napier said as she took to the stage alongside her husband. “We’ve never spoken to a crowd this big before.”
The crowd of about 600 people they spoke to appeared business casual. Ties snugged every man’s neck. And high heels dressed every woman’s feet. But Ben and Erin’s style spoke volumes of their Southern charm and humbleness.
“This shirt I’m wearing … this was made in Tylertown, Mississippi,” Ben said as he looked down at his flannel button down shirt. “I’m wearing a belt that was made somewhere else in Mississippi, and my blue jeans were made in Tupelo.”
For the Napiers, it’s all about teaming up with community members and utilizing everyone’s “gifts” in efforts to build and nurture a thriving town.
“Small towns are restored by regular people who embrace their story,” Erin said. “Every town has a story, and Mississippi is really good at telling stories. We are a story-telling people. We love our stories. We hold them dear.”
Together the couple is taking steps to “change the perception of Laurel from 10 years ago” by simply telling their stories.
“How do we tell our stories?” Ben rhetorically asked the crowd. “I tell mine through wood and history, and Erin tells her story through art and words.” Ben is a carpenter who crafts furniture, and Erin is a graphic designer who designs stationery, brochures and murals, which have appeared on buildings in downtown Laurel.
During his time at Ole Miss, Ben studied history and frequently visited the art department where, with the help of graduate art students, he learned carpentry. He admits it was the “blonde-haired cutie” and art major Erin who influenced his reappearances.
In December 2016, the Napiers reopened Laurel Mercantile Co., which originally operated in downtown Laurel from 1901 until the 1930s. As the company’s website says, “They used their combined expertise in history, design, historic preservation, organizational management, finance and accounting to reopen Laurel’s bygone hometown store.”
Like many people who own smartphones with internet access, Erin took advantage of her Instagram account to showcase the creative work she and her husband were producing in their hometown. Eventually, Erin’s account caught the eye of HGTV executive Lindsey Weidhorn. And the rest is history — actual history. The show’s pilot received 2.3 million views. That’s more than any other show in HGTV history.
“HGTV is sending a positive message to the world about Mississippi,” Ben said. “People are starting to flock to Laurel.”
Ben and Erin hope their creative identities and the stories within Laurel will inspire every Mississippi hometown to unlock its full potential.
“Don’t do things because of HGTV, do things because of the people that are already there.” Ben said.