By Kathryn Winter. Photography courtesy of Mickey Howley
Mickey Howley, director of the Water Valley Main Street Association, is redefining “the Valley” with the help of a few friends.
A large presence, both literally and figuratively, his early vision and leadership took Water Valley to new heights.
“Water Valley is a sweet town. I’m not saying it’s a fairy tale town, but it’s a town that still has a solid lay out. It hasn’t turned into a suburban sprawl. There was a time-period when it was hurting a little bit, but it never fell on desperate times,” Howley said.
Water Valley was built as a railroad town, one that had a large railroad yard that serviced engines coming from Chicago to New Orleans. The last train ran through the town in 1984, although according to Howley, some people still think of it as a railroad town.
“Same with Oxford, North Mississippi is really a development of railroads and railroad towns, most developed after the Civil War. There is a railroad museum in Water Valley. The town is laid out in North to South fashion, downtown being built at the bottom of the valley and closest to the tracks.”
He notes how the architecture even tells a story. “Illinois Central Railroad brought in a lot of northern carpenters who were mainly of Scandinavian descent and who built the houses in the Valley. The houses here have very steep roofs, because Scandinavians thought they needed steep roofs to keep the snow away.”
Howley, originally from New Orleans, moved to Oxford in 1999 when his wife accepted a job with the University of Mississippi. They lived in Oxford for a few years, looking at surrounding towns because the couple likes older houses. “We’re preservationists. We like to fix up older homes,” Howley said. In 2005, the Howley’s bought an old building.
Because his wife had seven years experience working in an art gallery in New Orleans on Magazine Street, soon the couple created Bozart’s art gallery and it opened on Main Street. Today, the gallery features art work from 15 different regional artists, half living in Water Valley, and the other half from surrounding counties. “The name is a pun on the French term beaux art,” Howley said.
“We try to have fun- we host a lot of events in the gallery. My philosophy is have an event and introduce a good bit of fun and people will come back. The appeal of the art scene here is there are three galleries in town now. Once a year we have an art crawl, people come to town get a map and go to galleries and see in house studios.”
Attendees actually walk in neighborhoods and go in houses and see where the artists really create their work. In the past they have had anywhere from 13 to 17 stops in the crawl within a three-hour window.
It is a free, walkable event held on a Saturday in October.
Revitalization started with the commercial section of downtown on Mainstreet, according to Howley. “We’ve had good luck with a fair amount of people who purchased old buildings and houses and brought them up to good condition. We’re actually running out of old buildings to fix up, which is a good thing, but what we’re doing now is focusing on a shift to education and creativity.”
One plan to boost creativity is to develop a software coaching academy for people who live in the area, but aimed towards kids outside of high school. “The hope is that we can provide education and skill set learning even in small places like Water Valley. It’s all part of the bigger picture. We’re also going to take an old high school and turn it into an art school. We’re trying to create a good quality of life and make it better for everyone who lives here.”
Jim Dees, host of Thacker Mountain Radio, once called Water Valley “our Brooklyn” and Howley takes that as a very high compliment. “All small towns are different from each other. Actually all cities are different. Whether New York or Coffeeville, they all have different personalities, some commonalities, but each town has individuality.”
Mickey’s own enthusiasm and joie de vivre has inspired many others. “It’s more than architecture, it’s small enough where you know everyone, or about everyone, big enough to have a bank, hospital, newspaper, galleries, brewery and restaurants. We work really hard to make this town livable for everyone.”
Another way he’s improving Water Valley is by traveling to other places and seeing what they’re doing. If it’s a place that seems interesting, Howley envisions it as a possibility for Water Valley.
“Look at other places and see how they’re doing and where they’re going, not steal ideas, but understand the philosophy behind it. Every time I come back I’m always happy to come back, I don’t ever get the blues here. People are happy and have a positive attitude- a very solid attitude about who we are and what we’re doing. That and the work which is very satisfying is what keeps me going everyday.”