Hotel Indigo is seen in Hattiesburg’s District at Midtown Monday, September 17, 2018.

After Hurricane Katrina sent developer Rob Tatum packing from New Orleans back to his native Hattiesburg in 2005, Tatum started working on a real estate deal at home – renovating some historic buildings downtown into loft apartments.

As Tatum and his brother, Craig, began renovations, they kept finding traces of the century-old Tatum legacy in Hattiesburg: “It was really cool when we started demo-ing the buildings,” Tatum said. “We started finding lumber from my great-great-grandfather’s lumber mill, and it was stamped ‘TATUM LUMBER CO.'”

So Tatum repurposed the wood into furniture for his own house as he refurbished the buildings themselves into loft apartments.

Developer Rob Tatum discusses Hattiesburg’s District at Midtown September 17, 2018.

Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Indigo, which opened earlier this year in Hattiesburg’s District at Midtown, Tatum represents the newest chapter of Tatums to remake the landscape of the city. Nestled amid the Midtown development’s new shops, restaurants and apartments, the themed boutique hotel pays homage to the city’s beginnings as a transit and timber hub. The lobby looks like a green and gold train car; the rooms contain portraits of the Tatums’ great-great-grandfather W.S.F. Tatum, a Hattiesburg mogul of the early 20th century whose profitable logging and railroad ventures led to stints as town mayor.

Now, the city’s economy depends primarily on the University of Southern Mississippi, which has over 2,000 employees, and Forrest General Hospital and Hattiesburg Clinic, which together hire some 5,500 people. More distantly, there is also the military post Camp Shelby at the city’s southern edge.

The mixed-use Midtown development, which sits across the street from the USM campus, aims to better bridge USM and the hospital, but also to recenter development back in the city proper – against the conventional wisdom, as mayor Toby Barker puts it, of building west down the I-98 corridor.

Hattiesburg’s District at Midtown is photographed on Hardy Street Monday, September 17, 2018.

Once a plot of university land featuring a shuttered, tornado-damaged dormitory, the Midtown development represents a $35 million investment and some 250 jobs, per Area Development Partnership executive vice president Todd Jackson, to a city of some 47,000 people that has been touted in the news as a “beacon of tourism” and a leader in job growth in recent years.

“Greater Hattiesburg currently leads the State of Mississippi in job growth with a 2.4% increase in employment over the last year, one of only 59 MSA’s in the nation to see employment gains,” Jackson said. “Quality of life offerings like the District at Midtown further strengthen this already strong and diverse economy.”

Midtown is more than just luring people (and tax dollars) back from the suburbs which have sprawled toward nearby Lamar County. It’s also about putting Hattiesburg into a league with a set of small but thriving cities that dot the Southeast: think Greenville, S.C., a model Tatum draws inspiration from, or Tuscaloosa.

“As we push ourselves to play the bigger league, Midtown is certainly a big domino to fall,” Barker said.

The work being put into Midtown, which began about three and a half years ago, is not the only way that the city of Hattiesburg plans to target development across the city.

The I-98 West corridor continues to develop on its own, the mayor noted, without incentives, but the city is looking at creative ways to draw businesses into town. The city has a set of economic tools, like tax-increment financing for the Midtown project, or sales rebates for new retail outlets, to draw in businesses as well, Barker said.

“We believe in equity,” Barker said. “We want every neighborhood to see the same kind of momentum that Midtown has.”

Barker said his goal is to make Hattiesburg a “seamless city,” a term coined by former St. Petersburg, Fla. mayor Rick Baker, in which crossing the railroad tracks or a certain street in town doesn’t yield a noticeable difference. That is, a city in which all neighborhoods have high qualities of life, good infrastructure, and amenities for residents.

Development in Midtown is also good for the city’s downtown, as the two feed off of each other, added Andrea Saffle, executive director of the Hattiesburg Historic Downtown Association.

Tatum has other buildings downtown to turn into apartments in the pipeline, Saffle said – there’s a waiting list for units in the area. There are also affordable units being developed in town, like the redevelopment of the old Hattiesburg High School, she added.

Saffle and other business leaders interviewed don’t see gentrification and displacement of existing residents, the frequent corollaries to development across America’s cities, as a problem to be encountered now or in Hattiesburg’s near future, they said.

That doesn’t mean property values around the Midtown development aren’t going up, as Tatum pointed out. The next part of the project calls for a parking garage, and Tatum has to buy “some houses next door” to do so, houses which have only gotten pricier in the last three years.

USM Dean of Students and former Hattiesburg councilman Eddie Holloway speaks about the development of Hattiesburg’s District at Midtown Monday, September 17, 2018.

USM Dean of Students and former Hattiesburg councilman Eddie Holloway is heartened by what he calls instead the “re-gentrification” of downtown and midtown, but said he anticipates a challenge in establishing homeownership – over rentals – in coming years.

And the steady draw of people back from the suburbs has put a spotlight on the city’s public school system, which has long suffered from white flight to those same suburbs, as historians like Charles Bolton and Joseph Crespino have written about.

Or, as Tatum admits: “That’s an economic problem I can’t solve by building a project.”

State senator Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, pointed out that the school district could use more money and better, well-paid teachers, but that the city’s schools problem isn’t unique to Hattiesburg.

If Hattiesburg’s growing pains are to be managed, it’s going to take a smart growth plan, Tatum said.

Tatum himself is likely to play some role in that plan. As a Hattiesburg resident who returned to his hometown, he’s not aiming to “squeeze every last dollar out of the turnip,” he said. If the city sees a better use for a piece of land, Tatum might pass up on his intended plan for that land: “If it’s not the right thing to do for the city let me hit pause and find the right thing to do for the city,” he said.

“He’s on the moon right?” Saffle said. “He’s a local developer and he’s investing in Mississippi.”

As part of Mississippi Today’s ongoing series, Newsroom from the Taproom, Editor-in-Chief Ryan Nave will interview Mayor Toby Barker live at 6:00 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20 at Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg. For more information, visit our Events page.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.