- AffiliationHome Town
Like so many other small American cities that once flourished as hubs of industry, Laurel, Miss., had found itself in a long, rusting decline. By 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of some 18,500 had barely changed from a decade earlier, except that less of that population was working, with the local unemployment rate reaching nearly 11%. Just over a decade ago, 70% of the city’s homes were valued under $100,000. The once-booming lumber town in Mississippi’s Piney Woods was on nobody’s map of destination towns, it seems. Except for Ben and Erin Napier’s.
Straight after graduating from Ole Miss in 2008, the pair decamped to a loft in the city’s tumbleweed-empty downtown, making camp with two other fearless couples. “It was just us and the feral cats,” Erin, who grew up in Laurel, told Southern Living magazine. For those who follow the Napiers on Home Town, their popular HGTV resettle-and-rehab show, now in production for its sixth season, what happened next is no surprise: They began to rebuild, one front porch at a time. But even more than that, they began to inject life into Laurel, luring in new settlers by promising to make each one feel instantly at home. The Napiers accomplish this recurring feat as much through narrative—carving or painting each homebuyer’s story into the smallest of design details—as they do with kitchen islands and flooring. “Both my parents are ministers, and storytelling and ministry go hand in hand,” says Ben, 37, an avid student of history. “But I think, for both of us, we don’t see story necessarily as something that is written or spoken.” It can be as tangible as a piece of furniture, a wall hanging, or a quilt laid out on a bed—and the Napiers bring in a host of local artists and artisans to help tell those often-emotional tales. “Every person on earth has a history. And that’s what home is,” says Erin, 35, who is also a trained and gifted artist. “It doesn’t matter what the whole world thinks about your home; it matters that your home is the place that’s the most personal and the most welcoming place on earth to you.”
Outside of their HGTV show, they have retold the tale of Laurel’s rebirth as if it were a chapter in the Bible—an upbeat parable that has found a ready audience on social media. And with 1 million followers on Instagram, Erin has given a big-city reach to her beloved hometown. “If no one tells the story of Laurel, then no one hears the story,” she tells Fortune. “And so, I’d started a daily journal, like a blog, about what it was like for us renovating a loft in downtown where no one lived; it was a ghost town. And then you tell the story of what you know to be true, the goodness of it, and then you make other people believe that it could be possible for them too, and then they want to be a part of it.”
Today it’s clear that many people do. According to real estate site Zillow, home valuations in Laurel have been on a rocket ride for the past seven years. No surprise, then, that the Napiers (and their HGTV producers) have exported their model to a new small community, Wetumpka, Ala., where the couple are rejuvenating not merely homes but also the neighborhood tethers that connect and nourish them: restaurants, public spaces, even an entire downtown street. (That show, Home Town Takeover, debuted May 2.) HGTV says that it received applications from 2,600 American towns hoping to be considered for the Napier treatment. Is it any wonder?