"We're Erin and Ben Napier. We live in a beautiful small town in Mississippi … Our town has seen hard times, but we're committed to changing that – one house at a time."
So began Episode 1, Season 1 of "Home Town" on HGTV, in January 2016.
Erin Napier told correspondent Martha Teichner, "We made the pilot and assumed it probably won't be on TV, it was just for fun. And then it was on TV, and it was 2.2 million people watched it. There was a snowstorm on the East Coast that day!"
Meaning a captive audience. But it wasn't a fluke. Five years later, Erin and Ben are HGTV superstars.
Erin recalled, "They said, 'We wanna make this a home renovation show, but also a romantic comedy."
"A love story about us, and about us and our town, and us and our friends," Ben added.
And about possibility. Laurel, Mississippi, population 18,000 or so, like so many other small towns, had been hollowed out.
Erin, a graphic artist, grew up in Laurel. She moved back with Ben, a furniture maker, when they got married after college. Erin said, "I don't like being told what I can and cannot do. I don't like to be told that you cannot have a professional art career in Laurel, Mississippi. I don't like to be told that the place where I'm from is dead. It is interesting and it's creative, and it's unusual. And I wanted to share that with the world."
All but one of the 70 buildings they've renovated in Laurel are homes.
But new restaurants and shops have opened in what had been empty storefronts, including Guild & Gentry, a stylish, clubby men's store with a barber chair in the back.
Ben, who was having his hair cut, told Teichner, "For me and my friends, the idea of having a shop in downtown where we could go and get our hair cut – nothing fancy, a regular men's haircut – was, like, just the dream."
A dream come true for for the store's owner, Caroline Burks, another Laurelite who came home to a town daring to reinvent itself.
"I jokingly tell tourists that Laurel had a ten-year plan, but the show helped compress that into, you know, three to four years," Burks said.
Yes, tourists, thanks to the Ben and Erin factor. One man said, "It's because of them. You enjoy their personalities on TV and what they're doing for their town. You just wanna see it for yourself."
Another woman said, "We just got here, gonna be here for two to three days. And all because of Ben … and Erin. We love Ben!"
Teichner asked the Napiers, "What is it that you think makes people like you and your show?"
"It's a happy place," Erin replied. "They feel invested in Laurel and the story here. And I think they see something universal that maybe applies to where they're from, too."
Which is how it happened that HGTV created a "Home Town" spinoff, called "Home Town Takeover." When it premiered on May 2, 6.5 million people saw Tabatha Powe's struggling women's boutique transformed.
What happened next? "Less than 24 hours, the entire website was sold out," Powe said.
And the store was so busy that Powe was swamped: "I was a mess. I could not hold back the tears!" As she hugged her daughter she said, "My shop can survive now!"
Back in Laurel, Ben and a very pregnant Erin raced to finish shooting a new season of "Home Town" before their second child was born.
When we visited, they were about to show Donelle Thornton what they'd done to her home on her $60,000 budget.)
Before … and after.
"Oh my God!" Thornton exclaimed.
The reveal really is a surprise. "We get to be on the front row for Christmas morning, over and over and over and over again," Erin said.
But for Erin and Ben Napier, there's more to the story than the happy ending: "We hope that it is about smalltown America," said Ben. "We hope that that's the takeaway from the show."
"Yeah, and not back splashes," Erin said.
"I mean, we love a pretty backsplash!"
"I love a great backsplash. It's true!"
For more info:
- "Home Town" (HGTV)
- "Home Town Takeover" (HGTV)
- Guild & Gentry, Laurel, Miss.
- The Tapp 18, Wetumpka, Ala.
Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. Editor: Carol Ross.
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