Pearl, M-Braves make perfect pair

Atlanta's Double-A affiliate picked right place at the right time

Blue Country Cooking restaurant in Pearl, Miss. features a shelf packed with mementos of recording artist LeAnn Rimes. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)

March 23, 2006 3:00 AM

Sean Guillotte can't help but notice the difference. The sales associate for the Mississippi Braves has detected a change in both his hometown of Pearl, Miss., and in the residents themselves. The team has had that kind of impact on the city.

Before the Braves moved their Double-A team to Trustmark Park last season, Pearl wasn't the liveliest place in the world. High school football was the biggest game in town and a couple of Minor League teams -- most recently the Jackson Mets -- had come and gone from the area.

That has changed over the course of the past year. The Braves were the right franchise, and Pearl was the right place. Once known derisively as the place to go to buy a trailer, Pearl has become a burgeoning city.

"The biggest change has been the attitude. Pearl has been the brunt of jokes," Guillotte said. "Now, you see Pearl people walking with pride. We have the Mississippi Braves. The area where the ballpark is at, you see things popping up.

"With all the stuff popping up, you're looking at a five-, six- or seven-year honeymoon period where it's going to continue to grow," Guillotte added. "You see more people coming to Pearl. You see them coming here and shopping. It's literally turned this city around for the better."

One reason for that turnaround has to do with that old real-estate staple: location, location, location. Pearl is situated where Interstate 55 and Interstate 20 intersect. Consider that both roads cross state lines and are two of the largest in the state, and it's easy to see Pearl has a gem of a location. It's easy to get to from either the north or south on Route 55, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans. It's just as easy to get there on Route 20, which goes from coast to coast.

"It's the most convenient place to be, with small town atmosphere and the convenience of a big city," said Kathy Deer, the assistant director of the Pearl Chamber of Commerce, who also is a Mississippi Braves season-ticket holder. "We're five or 10 minutes from anything."

Pearl was -- and still is -- a bedroom community. Many of the local residents work in state government and commute to Mississippi's capital city of Jackson, which is about 7 miles away. Jackson is also where the nearest airport (Jackson International Airport) and college (Jackson State University) are located. The closest "big city "of 200,000 or more is Baton Rouge, La., which is 144 miles to the southwest.

Though Pearl might sound more like small-town America, its population of 21,961 (in 2000) made it the 13th largest city in the state. It's located in Rankin County, which was established in 1828. Through the first half of the 20th century, Pearl was farm country and the population was low. But with the influx of industry in the mid-1900s, Pearl became more of a residential community.

"Rankin County was the second-fastest growing county in the state last year," Deer said. "Being that we're in the South, we have a church on every corner."

The city continued to grow thanks to development in the state capital and the completion of levees and flood control work, which protected the city from the Pearl River. Pearl was incorporated in 1973 after three attempts, all of which went to the Supreme Court. When the ruling came down, Pearl instantly became a city of 15,000 citizens and the largest community initially incorporated in state history.

The city is still very much a family-oriented place that is known for its good schools. Residents pack the high school football games, and the Pearl High School soccer team just won its second consecutive state title. Besides the Braves, a Bass Pro Shop was opened next to Trustmark Stadium in November. Shoppers are bused in from miles away to what Deer believes is the largest outdoor store in the state. Locals can fish in the Ross Bennett Reservoir, which has been the site of several bass fishing tournaments.

Pearl has a 16-screen movie theater with stadium seating and an assortment of restaurants, including Blue Country Cooking, owned in part by Melissa Bagwell, Aunt of LeAnn Rimes. The restaurant features an extensive display of photos, T-shirts and other souvenirs in tribute to the contemporary recording artist. The city also is the home to Miskelly's, one of the largest furniture stores in the state.

"Where the stadium is located -- and Bass Pro right next to us -- that area used to be nothing but swamp area," Guillotte said. "There was not much to do except watch the grass grow."

There's a lot more to do now. A lot of that goes back to the Braves coming to town. The club signed a 20-year contract with the city and moved into a new $28 million ballpark. It was the right team and the right place at the right time. In just one year, local fans have already followed Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann and Joey Devine as they not only made rapid ascensions to the parent club but continued to play well. The only glitch in the inaugural season came when the team had to cancel its last seven home games after damage done by Hurricane Katrina.

"Only two teams would work: the Braves and the Yankees, and the Braves would work better," Guillotte said. "I remember getting cable television in Rankin County in the '70s and watching the Braves on TBS. That was literally the only baseball you could get in Mississippi."

There's another choice now. The change has been noticeable.

Tim Leonard is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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