(Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) As the then-Republican Mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith watched as the city’s $1 million expenditure for the multi-modal Union Station blossomed into a $135 million public-private investment in the historic downtown.
Smith says the area was once a run down inner-city neighborhood. Then, Union Station became a one-stop location for Amtrak, city bus service, shuttles to the airport and a nearby Navy base. After that, restaurants and boutiques opened nearby, and the area became walkable.
“There’s a conference center there now. There’s a restored performing arts center there. There are condominiums, market rate apartments, very affordable apartments, and opportunities there in the downtown that didn’t exist 14 years ago when we opened this station.”
He says Meridian was already the retail, medical, employment, cultural, and educational center for an 11-county region. But the new transit center, he says, was what spurred new growth. Union station, he says, “became the most heavily used public space in Meridian, MS. Over 350,000 passengers a year use that station. Keep in mind you’re talking about a city of 40,000 people.”
More important, he says, it gave young people a reason to come home to rural Meridian when they graduated from college.
“Less densely populated states like Mississipp, Montana, Maine have a great deal in common with each other even though we may not think we do. And it’s not congestion of transportation that’s our problem. It’s access to transportation,” he says.
He says access to transportation means access to jobs, health care, education, and opportunity. Listen to a version of this story on Yellowstone Public Radio on how public transportation can revitalize communities.
John Robert Smith is a former mayor of Meridian, Miss., former chairman of the Amtrak board and is now the co-chair of the new national non-profit group Reconnecting America. He'll be on Yellowstone Public Radio for a live call-in show later tonight. Here's how to listen online and call-in.