Main Street Monroeville’s Renaissance

Known for literary giants, this South Alabama town is bustling thanks to community support and a wave of youthful entrepreneurs.
Jun 3, 2024 11:00 AM ET

By Doug Segrest

The Main Street Now Conference’s annual gathering was held in Birmingham, Alabama, May 6-8, bringing in leaders from across the country. Before the conference began, Doing More Today looked at Main Street’s impact in small-town America.

Best known as the small town that produced literary giants, Monroeville is undergoing a downtown renaissance in south Alabama. And it’s all fueled by a new wave of small-business owners.

“We have seen eight new businesses open in downtown the last 14 months,” said Anne Marie Bryan, the executive director of Monroeville Main Street. “Six of the eight owners are under 35. We have these amazing young entrepreneurs investing in Monroeville’s future.”

The Square is the hub of downtown Monroeville, centered around the contemporary courthouse and the original, an iconic judicial building that now serves as a museum.

When Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was turned into a hit film in 1962, producers created a replica studio set based on what is now called the Monroe County Heritage Museum, and the Hollywood magic in the film is evident by the mirror images that remain – from the gothic exterior to the interior courtroom where one can channel their own Atticus Finch.

Inside the museum are tributes to Lee and her young friend, Truman Capote. In a courtyard out back, wooden chairs are set up in the Otha Lee Biggs Amphitheater for the final 2024 performances of the play. Don’t worry about missing out. Mockingbird relaunches its run March 28, 2025.

It’s that tie with bestselling fame that lures steady stream of tourists to town, and visitors can leisurely take it in with the Literary Capital Sculpture Trail, which honors Lee, Capote and other written-word luminaries, from Pulitzer Prize winners to a hero of the Alamo, all of whom have deep ties to the town.

But the focus of Bryan and Main Street is to make sure people have a reason to stay.

The newest arrival, Barfield’s Mercantile, has settled in on Pineville Street, where 31-year-old owner Ashtin Barfield offers an eclectic variety of clothing and merchandise. In the corner, a restored wooden Jon Boat holds new offerings while honoring the memory of her late stepfather.

I wanted to find something that gave me purpose, where I’m giving back to Monroeville.

Ashtin Barfield, Owner of Barfield’s Mercantile

“This is my one-month anniversary,” Barfield said, “and we couldn’t be happier. My husband and I both grew up here. We knew we’d have community support, but I’m still pleasantly surprised with how well things are going.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t nerves involved. Getting a new business off the ground takes a sizeable investment. But for Barfield, it’s about much more than revenue.

“I wanted to find something that gave me purpose, where I’m giving back to Monroeville,” she said. “I want Monroeville to be so successful that no one ever wants to leave.”

She’s got competition. Just a few doors down, Bonehead Boots has established itself as a go-to place for hunters and anglers. In this part of Alabama, that’s the majority of the population.

We are a small, rural town and we all have to work together. That’s how we’ve gotten where we are and that’s how we’ll get better.

Anne Marie Bryan, Executive director of Monroeville Main Street

But that’s part of Main Street’s grand plan, making the Square the must-shop destination throughout the region.

“Collaboration, not competition,” explained Main Street’s Bryan. “We are a small, rural town and we all have to work together. That’s how we’ve gotten where we are and that’s how we’ll get better.”

That collaboration means new and existing businesses working with Main Street Alabama, local governments and banks, like Regions, which has been involved with the Main Street program since it came to the state.

Ensuring a flourishing downtown is the key to sustaining our towns and cities for generations to come.

Paul Carruthers, Regions’ Community Development Manager

“At Regions, we know that small businesses drive communities,” said Paul Carruthers, Regions’ Community Development Manager. “And ensuring a flourishing downtown is the key to sustaining our towns and cities for generations to come.”

Putting Down Roots

Along North Mount Pleasant, local businessman Billy Jones and his business, JWJ Investment Properties, turns old storefronts into Airbnb rentals for visitors. He’s not a Millennial, but he’s a driving force behind the redevelopment. One of his newest efforts, the Old Jail Inn, features lofts in what used to be a holding facility. It’s the last of 15 lofts that are about ready for occupancy, with another four on the drawing board.

“The lofts fill a big gap,” Bryan said. “We don’t have mid-grade hotels here, and we don’t have short-term housing, so these are perfect for people who come here to visit beyond play season.”

We don’t have mid-grade hotels here, and we don’t have short-term housing, so these are perfect for people who come here to visit beyond play season.

Billy Jones, Owner of JWJ Investment Properties

In between the new lofts are other businesses. Raw Replenish and Cobwebs offer healthy foods and home decor, respectively. Construction has begun out back for a new project.

Around the corner, in a container box, local artists paint a mural on the exterior. Inside the Small Box Shop, owner Kateland Bradley offers a delectable assortment of sweet eats.

“I’ve been baking since I was 12 and I’ve always dreamed of owning my own bakery,” said Bradley, who has a cottage food license. Having started her business out of her home the pop-up container, which Main Street provides for a minimal monthly rent, offers Bradley the chance to test-run her business before investing in a brick-and-mortar location and a larger overhead.

We moved here hoping to put roots down and belong to a community, for us and our kids.

Kateland Bradley

Another of Monroeville’s wunderkind entrepreneurs, Bradley sees her business as part of the bigger vision.

“We moved here hoping to put roots down and belong to a community, for us and our kids,” Bradley said.

‘We All Support Each Other’

With a population just under 6,000 people and needing a good commute from the interstate to get there, it would be easy for Monroeville to be forgotten outside of the annual April pilgrimage to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” come to life. But arriving here is like a trip back in time in the best of ways. Even the white picket fences that lead visitors to downtown remind one of Maycomb, Harper Lee’s fictional setting.

Like Atticus, Scout and Jem Finch, Monroeville is building on its famous past to poise itself for the future.

“We’re an hour-and-a-half from Mobile (Alabama), an hour-and-a-half from Pensacola (Florida) and the same distance from Montgomery (Alabama),” Bryan said. “So we are in an enviable location – at the edge of the Coastal Plain and the beginning of the Black Belt. We just need to keep giving people reasons to visit and stay.”

Doing that means investing in small businesses, the lifeblood of every community.

“Within Main Street communities, when we see a successful project that would work in our community, we ask the Main Street program how they did the project,” Bryan said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, they will send you their entire plan – including mistakes, successes and things they would do differently. We call it ‘R&D’ – rip-off & duplicate.”

Along South Alabama Avenue, Amanda Winters’ Glow Therapy Clothing is the latest boutique shop. Yet another Millennial with commerce in mind, Winters got the business bug working retail in high school.

Her mission is not only to succeed, but to help others along the way.

“We all support each other,” Winters said. “If I can’t help someone, I can send customers around the corner where they’ll find what they are looking for.”

If I find a food truck or home-based business, I want them here. It’s good for traffic and it’s good for everyone’s business.

Amanda Winters, Owner of Glow Therapy Clothing

The help extends beyond Glow Therapy Clothing to her parking lot, where she offers free space to food trucks and pop-up businesses.

“If I find a food truck or home-based business, I want them here,” Winters explained. “It’s good for traffic and it’s good for everyone’s business.”

The Law of Attraction

Inside the historical courtroom, where Act 2 of Mockingbird takes place each spring, Patrick Harrigan takes a few minutes to describe the growth he’s seen. Harrigan is the owner of Harrigan Lumber Company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Though his business is located away from the downtown traffic, Harrigan is one of Main Street’s biggest boosters. Because what is good for the community benefits everyone.

“When it comes to attracting employees and trying to get people to a small town, it’s very difficult if they tour the town and it looks like it’s old and dying,” Harrigan said. “But when you have a thriving downtown environment, that’s much easier to attract someone.”

They’ll see a thriving community and be pleasantly surprised. It’s great for everybody.

Patrick Harrigan, Owner of Harrigan Lumber Company

Like everyone who visits, he sees the Renaissance going on, and it feels him with a sense of pride.

“A lot of people come to Monroeville for the courthouse, the Museum (or) to see ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ They’ll see a thriving community and be pleasantly surprised. It’s great for everybody.”

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