Generally, when something in Mississippi attracts the interest of those in other parts of the country, it is not a pleasant thing.
There are exceptions, of course, especially in the fields of art, music and literature.
But more often when the outsider’s gaze fixes on our state, we generally find it to be a painful, if sometimes necessary, examination.
Yet when it comes to downtown Columbus, there is probably no stronger advocate than the one you find in Santa Rosa, California, some 2,300 miles away.
Gayle Guynup would seem like a most unlikely patron of downtown Columbus. A lifelong Californian and lawyer and judge by trade, Guynup’s association with Columbus began mostly by happenstance.
Guynup’s father was a rancher/logger in northern California. In the 1980s, he was looking for an investment when he happened to see an advertisement for the Gateway Shopping Center in Columbus and decided it would be a good business move.
Eleven years ago, when Guynup’s father died, she came to Columbus to sort out his affairs.
“When I came to Columbus to take over managing Gateway, I found that I really, really liked the South,” she says. “So, instead of selling it or trading it for something closer to home, I made the decision to stay and see if I could improve our holdings and invest in the area.”
In 2007, Guynup, who is the trustee for several family trusts, bought the Oddfellows Building on Main Street.
“Since then, I try to have a project going almost every year,” she said.
Guynup’s most recent purchase, the old train depot building at the east end of Main Street, doesn’t fit the criteria you might think of a “hot property,” but her motives in pursuing the property tell you much about her motives, which are not confined to the bottom line.
“If I just wanted to make money, I could build tract homes or invest more in the stock market,” Gunyup says. “But I wanted to make my work more meaningful. It’s more meaningful if you can preserve something of historical value or something that has innate value.
“When I first came to Columbus 11 years ago, downtown was really a ghost town. There were some beautiful buildings, but not a viable community. Now, every time I come, I see improvements. Those of us who want to see downtown Columbus succeed have to take some risks, even if it’s only on a few projects. You know, I still don’t have a business proposition for the depot and I don’t think it’s necessarily a good business decision. There are better opportunities in town. But if you look at it another way, in terms of really investing in downtown, it’s a good thing.”
What also appeals to Guynup is how pleasant it is to do business in Mississippi compared to her native California. From city officials to bankers to Realtors, she has found Columbus to be a place where red tape is limited, the business community and city government are accommodating and the people are remarkably friendly.
“Doing business on the west coast is so impersonal,” she says. “It’s competitive. There’s no thought of the innate value of what you are doing; it’s just a business decision. By contrast, doing business in Mississippi is a joy.”
We have our share of challenges, it is true. But sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to remind us that, for all of the issues we face, there are things that are beautiful and good and worthy of preserving right here in our back yard. If a stranger from northern California can see the promise our community holds, maybe we should, too.
Who is to say that message isn’t just as important as any business deal Guynup has made in Columbus over the years?
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.