In this undated photo, Best with McAnally | Image: Camp Best

Many in Fondren remember the early days, long before it was “Jackson’s Hippest Neighborhoodâ„¢.” Camp Best is one such individual who can say he was there when the renaissance began.

Today at 1pm at Brown’s Fine Art & Framing, a reception will be held to honor Best and Mary Jo McAnally, his “partner in crime” for many years. Fondren Renaissance Executive Director Jim Wilkirson says of the pair, “Mary Jo and Camp have served Fondren faithfully for so many years and I credit them as two of the most influential people who have made Fondren what it has become today.”

Best sat down with Find It In Fondrenâ„¢ to talk about those early days and to fill us in on what his life is like today.

Who is Camp Best?
I was born and raised in Jackson and am a product of public school system (Bailey Jr. High to Murrah High, class of 1970). I spent lots of time hanging out in Fondren in the 60’s – burgers and shakes at Brent’s served up by Fish and Edna, Saturday movie matinees at The Capri, sugar overloads at Campbell’s Bakery and cold beer at Shakey’s.  I started my college journey at Ole Miss and ended up getting my undergrad at Millsaps.

Professionally, I’ve had numerous career adventures over the last 40 years. I’ve always suffered from excessive wanderlust and overactive imagination and curiosity that has kept me hopping around. I earned my first Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Ole Miss and worked downtown in late 70’s as a city planner for the City of Jackson for a few years. I was lured into the oil and gas business in the early boom days and worked as a landman for my Dad and other independent brokers. Then I got the itch to be a shopkeeper and explore my creative design side and bought Fridge’s Fireside Shop on Lakeland Drive (where The Meridian is being developed) and operated it through the middle 1980’s.

I then jumped over to the wholesale side of the gift and furniture industry and served as National Sales Manager for Country Originals, Inc. (now Kalalou). I got to travel coast to coast to many major metro areas in the States in this role working trade shows and this is where I began to get interested again in urban design and revitalization.

Around this time, I bought a historic house in Fondren on Pennsylvania Avenue and started hanging out around what was then called the Fondren North Renaissance office. One thing led to another and I convinced my good friend, Sarah Jones Nelson, to promote my candidacy for the position of Manager of the newly formed Fondren Main Street program. She was effective in this mission, and the rest is history.

You lead Fondren during what period?
I originally came on board as the Fondren Main Street manager in 1999 and then was hired as the Executive Director of Fondren Renaissance Foundation in 2001. I served in this position until 2006 when wanderlust struck again and I headed north, once more to Oxford and Ole Miss.

What was the neighborhood like back in those days?
Fondren as a whole was much quieter and sleepier back then.  And, the commercial district of downtown Fondren was really just beginning to wake up. Heretofore, much of the efforts of the neighborhood organizations had been devoted to safety and security and preservation and stabilization of the numerous residential neighborhoods that made up greater Fondren.  It was really the initial efforts of the Main Street program that jump-started the economic boom and commercial renaissance in Fondren.

What were Fondren’s challenges in those days?
Our biggest challenge back then was getting people in Jackson, and even many in Fondren, to buy in and believe that downtown Fondren really did have the potential to become an end-destination arts, antiques, shopping and dining attraction. There had never been a real urban entertainment district in Jackson where residential and commercial neighborhoods coexisted and synergistically supported each other.  So with money that had been graciously donated to us by St. Dominic Hospital, we went about creating arts, music and retailing events and dressing up the district with consistent signage, lighting, benches and planters to make it look and feel like a true urban arts and entertainment district. We wanted to make it attractive and fun for not only Fondrenites, but to be open and inclusive for all Jacksonians.

Did you feel your efforts were a success back then?
I feel like our greatest success was this “getting over the hump” and convincing people to trust that our efforts were sincere and that this really could happen in an urban neighborhood in Jackson. And we did this by inviting people in to Fondren to see and experience this for themselves.  Arts Eats & Beats, ArtMix, Fondren Unwrapped, Symphony at Sunset, and the Four Seasons of the Cedars Arts Series were all created with the idea of showing off Fondren in a safe, attractive and appealing way that could also be fun events for Fondren neighborhood residents and beneficial economically to our business owners.

You must have had help? Who did you count as “on your side”?
There is a reason that I consistently use the word “our” when I am describing the revitalization work in Fondren that I am grateful to have been a part of.  “Our” means shared dreams, shared efforts, shared hard work, shared disappointments and shared successes.  The work that we did  was all about personal relationships, partnerships and community, including neighbors, business owners, churches, schools, hospitals, volunteers, staff, the City of Jackson and organizations like the Mississippi Arts Commission.

And none of it would have been even remotely possible without one particular person who really was “the boss” of this whole thing, my dear friend and colleague, Mary Jo McAnally. We worked side by side as foot soldiers in the trenches of urban revitalization for almost seven years. There is absolutely nothing that Mary Jo could not do or was not willing to try with me as we daily dreamed up sometimes outrageous ideas of how to make Fondren more attractive or better yet, how to convince someone to help us out financially.

Mary Jo also always had the good sense to tell me, ‘No, we can’t do that yet,’ or, ‘Don’t dare send that e-mail the way it is,’ or, ‘You need to march right down to so and so’s house or business and apologize for being impertinent or pushing too hard on an issue.’ Mary Jo had been working for Fondren long before I showed up and she carefully guided me through all the political maneuvering and posturing that was necessary to get things done. We trusted each other completely and, once we agreed on a game plan, it was full steam ahead, throttles wide open. What a grand time we had!

How do you see Fondren today?
This is difficult for me to answer, as I have spent so little time in Fondren in recent years and don’t want to be unfair.  It’s certainly encouraging to see so many outstanding new commercial ventures – restaurants, retail and multi-family developments.  And, I am so happy to see The Cedars continue to be cared for and flourish as a remarkable venue for art shows and community gatherings.  I guess I still look at things like I always did though . . with a critical eye as to what remains to be done or what could be done better.  It’s an imagineer’s curse.

What are you doing now?
I returned to the University of Mississippi and earned a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling in 2009.  I am a licensed professional counselor and have been counseling, teaching and mentoring students at Ole Miss since that time.  I’m still involved in civic and community work by serving on the Historic Preservation Commission in Oxford for the last six years.
And your art? What will we see at Brown’s today?
I’m a completely untrained artist,  just a left-handed guy with a creative spark and an eye for color and design.  The works that I am showing at Brown’s came out of a flurry of creativity in which I picked up some scissors and a bottle of glue and got in the flow with my muse.  Time passed and my cutting and pasting produced some fanciful collages which I refer to as “snippetry.”