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Meridian goes multimodal

There's probably no bigger fan of railroad-station renewal than John Robert Smith, the mayor of Meridian, Miss.

At his fiancee's suggestion, Mr. Smith celebrated the rebirth of Meridian's Union Station by getting married on the premises the day after the station opened in 1997.

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Through an announcement in the local newspaper, the public was invited. About 300 to 400 townspeople showed up for the trackside vows. Following a reception, the newlyweds boarded a train to begin their honeymoon.

"It was jokingly called the mayor's multimodal marriage," Smith recalls.

Under Smith's leadership, Meridian has created an intermodal transportation hub, linking rail, Greyhound bus, and local transportation services under one roof.

"We needed a catalyst to provide life in downtown," Smith says. "Meridian had lost any sense of vision or purpose for the future. We had developed a 'can't- do' attitude. We needed a couple of winners so that we could believe in ourselves."

Two "winners" involved saving an area military base from closure and getting a new retail mall built. But downtown still needed a spark, and the city's rail heritage provided an opportunity.

"Meridian is a child of the railroads; we have deep roots in the railroad history of the Southeast," the mayor says.

The city sprang up in 1860 where two railroads crossed. It became a transportation hub of the Confederacy. Union Gen. George Sherman had the city burned to the ground in 1864, but Meridian's citizens rebuilt the railroad in 26 days.

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In the 1960s, Southern Railroad tried to give the station to the city, but the city declined, convinced the structure was a white elephant. Subsequently, Southern tore down everything but the baggage wing.

Meridian secured a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration to be the small-city study model for a multimodal transportation center.

Rebuilding the station took seven years and $6.5 million in federal and state funding. (The railroad gave the city five blocks of property at no cost.)

The baggage wing was rehabilitated and now houses the chamber of commerce, the Main Street redevelopment office, and Meridian's business development corporation. More than $10 million of private investment in the area has occurred, including in new apartments and luxury condos, with more development on the way. A museum celebrating Jimmie Rodgers, a Meridian native and the father of country music, is planned, and the new Riley Education and Performing Arts Center is on the drawing board.

The rest of the station was rebuilt in the distinct Mission-style architecture found in the previous station.

"We did not build a bland structure," Smith says. "This will give pride to the community for the next 100 years. It will say something to future generations about the people of this time and their view of themselves and their place in the region."

Not surprisingly, other municipalities have taken notice and visited to learn more. What they find is a train station that doubles as a community and business center. The main meeting room has just been made more computer-friendly for business groups, but it's the personal ways people have used the space that most pleases the mayor.

His own example surely set the tone for the weddings, class reunions, retirement ceremonies, and birthday parties that have followed.

The juxtaposition of the traveling public with community activities is invigorating. "When you get off the bus or train in the evening and walk into the lobby, you may find a children's choir or small chamber orchestra performing," Smith says. "I think you feel you have arrived somewhere very special."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor