By BECKY GILLETTE
LAUREL — Magnolia State Bank (www.bankmagnolia.com) recently held a grand opening of its new branch of the bank in a triangular-shaped, landmark historic building downtown that housed the Laurel Mercantile in the late 1800s.
“They are bringing new jobs and excitement to the area, but they aren’t new to downtown,” said Jim Rasberry, Rasberry Financial Services, who is chairman of the Jones County Economic Development Authority. “They have been part of the growth of downtown since the beginning and Heather Brown has been a leading voice for downtown revitalization.”
Magnolia State Bank is a family business. At the grand opening March 2, the building was dedicated to the late Thomas E. Brown, the founder of Magnolia State Bank who passed away a year ago. His wife, Barbara Brown, is now chairwoman of the board.
Also involved in the business are the couple’s children, including Tom Brown, Betsy Brown, Drew Brown and Drew’s wife, Heather. Drew is branch president at the new downtown location for the bank that has been headquartered in Bay Springs since being founded in 1975.
“We practice what we are preaching about downtown revitalization,” Drew Brown said. “We just wanted to be a part of downtown. We want to be a part of the community, not just a business in the community. There is something special going on down here. You can feel it. It is almost like electricity in the air. It is a good time not just for downtown Laurel, but Laurel and Jones County in general.”
The old Laurel Mercantile building used to be a center of commerce in downtown Laurel at a time when farmers from miles around would bring their products to sell.
“We have pictures of horses and pigs walking around in the street in front of building,” Brown said. “As soon as my dad, mom and I saw the building, we knew we had to have it, if nothing else, to open it up for people to see. We even kept up the nostalgia by keeping details in the lobby like pretty old-time antique belt fans on the mezzanine.”
He describes Magnolia as a true hometown bank. When someone comes in for a loan inquiry, they can expect an answer within a day. That is because decisions are made in-house.
“We’re small, but we have all the things the big boys have such as the latest banking technology and any of the other services big banks have except on a local scale,” Brown said. “We have very low employee turnover. Our employees take pride in who we are. Many have been here years and years. I just turned 34, and several employees were here before I was born and have known me my entire life.”
His mother supervises decorating each branch for the holidays. Even though the downtown branch did not open until February, this year they decorated the windows of the new building for the holidays.
“You wouldn’t have found a prettier window display on Times Square,” Brown said. “People came downtown just to take pictures of it. It won the Laurel Main Street contest. Right now we have put up a display, ‘Spring showers bring magnolia flowers,’ which has Magnolia State Bank umbrellas and magnolias that are raining down.”
Heather Brown, who grew up in downtown Laurel, said the new three-story branch office is definitely a landmark of downtown Laurel. An active member and promotional chairwoman of the Laurel Main Street organization for about five years, she is past delighted to be a part of the renaissance of downtown Laurel.
“It’s crazy and awesome and fabulous,” Brown said. “My office is on the bottom floor of the building, and our location is in the middle of downtown. One recent Friday, I was just blown away from seeing so many people walking around downtown. Usually I know everyone, but I didn’t know any of these people. It is awesome seeing people coming and going to the new bakery, the butcher shop, the popcorn shop and the home décor stores. People are just actually walking around downtown, which you would never have seen a few years ago.”
Brown grew up downtown and earlier in her life when there was little business activity downtown, she never thought she went end up back in downtown Laurel.
“But I wouldn’t be anywhere else now with family close and the ability to give back with our business,” Brown said. “Drew has made it a habit to walk to the school our daughter. It is only a couple blocks away. He can stop at the bakery or the butcher on the way if he needs to pick something up. We love being able to shop local.”
In addition to the home office in Bay Springs, Magnolia State Bank has a branch in north Laurel, which is important to customers who come from north of town. Other branches of the bank north of town Laurel are Bay Springs, Heidelberg and Taylorsville. There is a branch south of Laurel in Petal. They continue to grow with plans to open at new location on Highway 98 in Hattiesburg mid-April.