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Stories Written by Sarah Robinson

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A central block in downtown Tupelo is getting a major makeover.
Mike Gillentine and his business partner, Scott Wagner, have ramped up their renovation of three buildings that will house retail and residential space as well as a new restaurant.
The three sites now under renovation were previously home to Main Street Vintage Guitars, Benjamin’s and The Big Easy.
Gillentine owned and operated the guitar shop until it closed earlier this year.
Swirlz, currently located on Court Street downtown, will take over the retail space previously occupied by the guitar store. Its lease begins in September.
The owners of the Neon Pig on North Gloster are opening Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, or KOK, in the space that was once Kermit’s Bakery. It was most recently a restaurant called The Big Easy.
KOK will offer seating on the first and second floor of the building and is set to open by the end of July, though no official date has been announced.
The building that was formerly Benjamin’s – and most recently, Latin Quarters – will be converted into two smaller retail spaces of approximately 1,800 square feet each. The second floor will be converted into residential space.
There will be six furnished apartments when the project is complete. Gillentine said his primary focus now is on restoring the facade of the building.
“We’re going back to the way the building originally looked,” he said.
A green metal covering currently stands in place of the original brick facade. Gillentine said the metal will be removed and the original eight windows on the building front will be restored.
Gillentine and his business partner plan to outfit the residential suites with high-end antiques. One will hold furniture original to the Goodlett Manor.
Several business owners in the area have contacted Gillentine about leasing the available retail space, though nothing has been committed. The type of businesses proposed have included a salon, cigar shop and culinary store.

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Debbie Brangenberg said the decision to increase the expenses for the annual Tupelo Elvis Festival by about $30,000 was “a calculated risk,” and one that she believes paid off.
Brangenberg is director of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, which puts on the annual festival.
“I think we have shown, proved that it was the right formula,” she said.
The festival board decided to increase the entertainment budget for the festival to bring in more popular acts for the outdoor concerts held in Fairpark in downtown Tupelo last month.
Headliners for the 2013 event included Cowboy Mouth, Montgomery Gentry and American Idol contestant Skylar Laine, a Brandon native.
Board members echoed Brangenberg’s sentiment.
“Seeing people downtown, getting people in from other counties … that’s what the festival was designed to do,” said Jim Goodwin. “It’s easy to get lost in the numbers.”
Income from the 2013 festival was $54,460 according to the latest financial statement, down from more than $82,000 in June 2012.
Brangenberg told board members the numbers still are preliminary. Total expenses for the 2013 festival were in excess of $72,000.
Ticket sales were up more than $7,000 from the prior year and sponsorship income increased by $5,000.
The city of Tupelo is expected to contribute $75,000 to the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association by the end of 2013.
In addition to hiring bigger acts for the most recent festival, a Sunday morning gospel show and brunch were added to attract more guests. Brangenberg said the new event “was everything we envisioned and more.”
The 2013 festival was held in Tupelo June 6-9. The DTMSA puts on other Tupelo events including Wine Downtown, the Chili Festival and the Christmas Parade.
sarah.robinson@journalinc.com

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

Most 26-year-olds would be thrilled to have just a few workers on their payroll. Justin Estes has more than 10 million – worker bees, that is.
Hidden on the back roads of Itawamba County, near the Evergreen community, Justin and his wife, Anna have a sizable garden abuzz with the sounds and smells of a Mississippi summer.
Just a few years ago, while sitting on the back porch watching carpenter bees burrow into the wood, Justin decided having a bee hive or two might be a nice hobby.
“At first I thought he was crazy,” Anna said.
But Justin’s natural talent and passion for his newfound hobby easily won her over.
“Two books and a bunch of phone calls” later, the Estes Family apiary now houses more than 200 hives and has become a full-time job.
“I was fortunate enough that there are some larger operations in the area that I could call for advice,” he said. But despite his relatively short career as a beekeeper, at least to an outsider, Estes already looks like a seasoned professional.
Bees do not react well to swift or aggressive movements. So beekeepers benefit from patience and methodical, fluid movements, not unlike the hive itself.
By the looks of his garden, Justin has a natural gift for cultivating and growing. He has three different varieties of grapes, muscadines, tomatoes, countless lilies, enormous butterfly bushes, hydrangeas and too many more treasures to list.
It seems completely natural that all that pollen should be put to good use.
Just on the border of the garden are the first half-dozen towers of wooden boxes that house a small portion of his bees. Estes carefully unstacks the tower, one level at a time to check the drones, egg cells, honey cells and even the queen.
And he already is teaching his 2-year-old son, Lucas, as much as he can.
With Lucas often in tow, Justin moves from hive to hive checking the combs for progress, crowding and harvesting those that are ready. He said one day he hopes Lucas will follow in his footsteps and keep the family bee yard going.
Estes strains and pots all the honey on site – more than 30 unfiltered, unadulterated gallons already this year. By the end of the season, he expects to collect about 1,000 gallons.
He sets up once a month at the Tupelo Flea Market, but the majority of his customers so far have found him through word of mouth in the community.
He also sells five-frame nucleus hives and single and double hives for anyone looking to start their own bee yard.
sarah.robinson@journalinc.com

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

EGYPT – Unlike many Northeast Mississippi farmers, Brent Wedel didn’t get into the business because of family ties.
“I just got this brainwave to try it,” Wedel said.
And he’s not a typical grower, either.
Wedel is a catfish farmer. Not growing up in the industry, he learned much of what he knows today through trial and error.
“I started with 10 acres in ’95 and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Wedel said. Today, he routinely produces more than 1 million pounds of catfish a year from his 26-pond farm in Egypt in Chickasaw County.
Wedel’s success is noteworthy in an industry that as a whole, has declined steeply over the past decade.
The Mississippi catfish industry peaked in 2002, with more than 113,000 acres of ponds statewide. Today, that acreage is down to about 45,000, according to Mississippi State University aquiculture expert Jim Steeby.
“Half of the industry is gone,” Steeby said, “We’re struggling to save a good bit of what is left.”
Catfish require high-quality feed primarily made from corn, the price of which has risen sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, cheap imports from China and Southeast Asia have flooded the market, driving catfish prices down.
Legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for U.S. catfish farmers was passed in the 2008 farm bill. The program would transfer the responsibility of inspecting imported seafood from the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA.
“It makes the standards very high,” said Steeby. “It would be a similar situation to the way meats are inspected in the U.S.”
INSPECTION PROGRAM
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is one of several lawmakers that has called the USDA into question for its continued failure to implement the program. In a statement released last month, Cochran expressed concern for the health of the catfish industry and consumers.
“There is concern that not much has been done even though Congress has authorized the Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect and grade catfish supplies to ensure they are safe to eat,” Cochran said.
According to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office, only 2 percent of imported seafood is properly inspected under the current program. The report found that “there were health and safety violations found in 482 shipments of imported catfish products between 2002 and August 2010.”
Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture committee, has attributed the delay in implementing the program due to the inability of the USDA to settle on a scientific definition for catfish.
The narrow standard currently applied requires domestically grown catfish to face stricter regulatory standards than imported fish. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the agency is on track to begin the new inspection program later in 2013.
For catfish famers, it may be too little, too late. At this point, Wedel said, the legislation has taken so long to enact that “most people have lost interest.”
Prices in the past few years have recovered to about 95 cents per pound, an improvement from the low of 70 cents but still far below the industry high of $1.35 per pound.
In the meantime, Wedel and other catfish farmers in the state will combat the problems they can like disease, heat and algae.
Steeby said Americans can help the industry, and their health, by eating more fish.
“Our diet doesn’t include enough seafood,” he said.
“If we did get enough seafood,” according to Steeby, farmers would hardly be able to keep up with demand.
He said retail products are supposed to be labeled by country of origin and buying domestic seafood is the biggest way to help the industry.
sarah.robinson@journalinc.com

Daryl Rigdon’s crew places the net into the pond to gather the day’s catch. (Adam Robison)

Daryl Rigdon’s crew places the net into the pond to gather the day’s catch. (Adam Robison)

EGYPT – Unlike many Northeast Mississippi farmers, Brent Weedle didn’t get into the business because of family ties.
“I just got this brainwave to try it,” Weedle said.

And he’s not a typical grower, either.

Weedle is a catfish farmer. Not growing up in the industry, he learned much of what he knows today through trial and error.

“I started with 10 acres in ’95 and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Weedle said. Today, he routinely produces more than 1 million pounds of catfish a year from his 26-pond farm in Egypt in Chickasaw County.

Weedle’s success is noteworthy in an industry that as a whole, has declined steeply over the past decade.

The Mississippi catfish industry peaked in 2002, with more than 113,000 acres of ponds statewide. Today, that acreage is down to about 45,000, according to Mississippi State University aquiculture expert Jim Steeby.

“Half of the industry is gone,” Steeby said, “We’re struggling to save a good bit of what is left.”

Catfish require high-quality feed primarily made from corn, the price of which has risen sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, cheap imports from China and Southeast Asia have flooded the market, driving catfish prices down.

Legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for U.S. catfish farmers was passed in the 2008 farm bill. The program would transfer the responsibility of inspecting imported seafood from the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA.

“It makes the standards very high,” said Steeby. “It would be a similar situation to the way meats are inspected in the U.S.”

INSPECTION PROGRAM

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is one of several lawmakers that has called the USDA into question for its continued failure to implement the program. In a statement released last month, Cochran expressed concern for the health of the catfish industry and consumers.

“There is concern that not much has been done even though Congress has authorized the Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect and grade catfish supplies to ensure they are safe to eat,” Cochran said.

According to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office, only 2 percent of imported seafood is properly inspected under the current program. The report found that “there were health and safety violations found in 482 shipments of imported catfish products between 2002 and August 2010.”

Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture committee, has attributed the delay in implementing the program due to the inability of the USDA to settle on a scientific definition for catfish.

The narrow standard currently applied requires domestically grown catfish to face stricter regulatory standards than imported fish. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the agency is on track to begin the new inspection program later in 2013.

For catfish famers, it may be too little, too late. At this point, Weedle said, the legislation has taken so long to enact that “most people have lost interest.”

Prices in the past few years have recovered to about 95 cents per pound, an improvement from the low of 70 cents but still far below the industry high of $1.35 per pound.

In the meantime, Weedle and other catfish farmers in the state will combat the problems they can like disease, heat and algae.

Steeby said Americans can help the industry, and their health, by eating more fish.

“Our diet doesn’t include enough seafood,” he said.

“If we did get enough seafood,” according to Steeby, farmers would hardly be able to keep up with demand.

He said retail products are supposed to be labeled by country of origin and buying domestic seafood is the biggest way to help the industry.

sarah.robinson@journalinc.com

 

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

GUNTOWN – A new event is scheduled to take place today at H.O.G.S., the Hot Off the Grill Sports Restaurant on Highway 45 in Guntown.
The “Ride for Autism” event aims to raise more than $5,000 in its first year, according to event organizer Vanessa Bowen, who was inspired to organize a fundraiser for the Autism Center of North Mississippi by her cousin who has autism.
“It is the only center in Mississippi that has a learning center for parents,” she said.
The Autism Center of North Mississippi offers individualized instruction for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities. The center relies on private funding and community support to offset the cost of those services to affected families.
Entries for the Best of Show contest begins at 3:15 p.m. today. Kick-stands go up at 4:15 p.m. and should last about an hour.
There will be prizes for the largest group of motorcyclists and for the group that travels the farthest to reach the event. The entry fee for bikers is $25 per person.
“This is going to be a family event,” said Bowen. In addition to the bike ride, the event will have a food, music and children’s activities, including bouncy houses and a coloring contest that begins at 4:30 p.m.
Music begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be provided by the Kevin Waide project. Raffle tickets are available for $5 and T-shirts for $15.
sarah.robinson@journalinc.com

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

SHANNON – Percy Maness dutifully served his country in the U.S. Navy, deploying eight times during his 20-year career.
He was in the Persian Gulf for both Iraq wars, served on four different aircraft carriers and was stationed all over the world.
“It was dangerous,” he said. “People got hurt. People got killed.”
Still, he said, if the Navy called him back today, he would not hesitate to return to duty. For Maness, his term in the military was more than any job could be – it was a way of life.
Settling into civilian life after so many years was a huge adjustment.
“I kind of feel sometimes like I’m not in the fight anymore,” he said.
Leaving the Navy, he said, felt like being left at port, only with none of the men with whom he shared a close camaraderie.
“I felt like my ship left me out all alone,” he said. “I looked back and no one was there.”
Like Maness, many veterans of the U.S. armed services face a myriad of challenges after leaving active duty. Not the least of which is the struggle to find work in an already tight job market.
Most have had little, if any, career experience apart from their military service.
Veterans representative Johnny Smith at the WIN Job Center in Tupelo said servicemen and service women have a strong skill set that goes above and beyond a typical job description.
“Many – if not all – vets, if nothing else, have work ethic,” Smith said.
Smith manages a federally funded initiative to help pair vets with civilian jobs through the WIN center. The federal government offers several tax incentives to businesses that hire vets through tax credits, one as much as $9,000 a year for two years per veteran hired.
The veterans program at the WIN Job Center in Tupelo offers more than just assistance in setting up interviews; it also works with veterans on resume writing, interviewing and basic computer skills.
Smith himself is retired from the military, serving more than 24 years in the U.S. Army and National Guard. He works closely with industry leaders in the area to identify employment opportunities.
Michael Hardy is a veteran Smith helped find a job through the program.
Hardy served three years in the Army and another three in the National Guard before returning home to Tunica. After several years in the Tunica County Sheriff’s Department as the assistant chief, he retired to take a job in the hospitality industry on the Gulf Coast. And then Katrina hit.
Hardy relocated to the Tupelo area with no job. Smith introduced him to a position at TLD Logistics in Baldwyn. In less than three weeks he had a job and was soon promoted to a supervisor position. He now is the North Mississippi manager for TLD and does what he can to hire veterans whenever possible.
“(The WIN Job Center) really tremendously helped me,” he said.
In addition to the federal programs available to veterans, the state has implemented initiatives to help put unemployed veterans to work.
“This year, 2013, was declared the year for hiring Mississippi heroes,” said Adam Todd, director of the governor’s job fair network.
“This is one way we can really try to help those men and women who have served us so well,” he said.
According to Todd, since the Sept.11 attacks, more than 25,000 Mississippians have served in the armed forces.
JOB FAIR THURSDAY
On Thursday, the state will hold a job fair for veterans, their spouses and dependents at the Belden Campus of Itawamba Community College from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Todd said this is the third of three fairs held throughout the state. All 36 spots available to employers at the fair have been reserved. Todd said he is working to find more room for additional vendors.
Some employers will conduct interviews and make offers right on the spot. Others may schedule interviews for a later date.
At a similar event in Jackson, 102 job offers were made on the day of the event. The state office projects 332 participants in total will be hired by participants over the next twelve months.
“There are many organizations out there right now looking to hire vets,” he said.
One Northeast Mississippi company has a particularly strong tie to the military.
General Atomics, located in the Tupelo Lee Industrial Park South, employs 12 veterans at its 60-person facility.
Percy Maness was one of the first few hired at the plant, which is working on a new aircraft launching system for the next-generation aircraft carrier for the U.S. Navy..
“I already knew that the Navy was going to do this project,” Maness said.
What he didn’t know was that the project would be located so close to Tupelo, where he was working as a recruiter.
In 2006, Maness was hired by General Atomics plant manager Pete Rinaldi, also a Navy man. Maness said he did not have a perfect skill set for the job at GA but that Rinaldi told him after 20 years in the military, “you’re trainable.”
He was right.
All of General Atomic’s employees are cross-trained to work in more than one position. Maness now is a department specialist for the defense contractor.
Jerry Riley, the lead technician, said military veterans often have experience with electronics and mechanical engineering, two skills GA looks for in job applicants.
The veterans employed at the plant said they could not recall one person being laid-off since it opened in 2006.
Most of the 11 veterans interviewed by the Daily Journal said they believed the work ethic instilled through their military service was a key factor in their success in the civilian workforce.
“Growing up I had a good work ethic instilled in me,” said GA employee Kelly Lyles who served four years in the Navy, “The military moved that along.”
sarah.robinson@journalinc.com

Job Fair
VETERANS, their spouses and dependents can meet employers with opportunities available at the Thursday job fair at the Belden Center of Itawamba Community College. For information visit

http://jobfairs.ms.gov.

FOR INFORMATION on veterans programs at the WIN Jobs Center, visit http://mdes.ms.gov/winjobcenters.

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

For the past few years, drivers on McCullough Boulevard likely have seen larger-than-life animals made of iron thanks to Brandie Backes and her whimsical outdoor art store.
Irony by Brandie offers an eclectic collection of ornamental outdoor sculptures, chimineas and furniture. And the large iron pig, bull and pistol are actually barbecue smokers.
Backes makes frequent trips to Mexico to find pieces for her store, located next to what used to be Marie’s and most recently Knight’s Drive-In. In addition to the pieces she finds, she also creates her own.
With a background in commercial landscaping and not art, Backes said she always has loved welding together old scraps of metal and discarded pieces of industrial equipment she found in her father’s home workshop.
“Everybody has a little bit of artist in them,” she said. Backes makes her own collection of outdoor furniture and decor, primarily from recycled metal scraps.
Backes has seen her business grow quickly since opening four years ago. She started with only about 60 pieces and now sometimes sells several dozen or more a day.
She studied business at Itawamba Community College but said hand-on practice has been the best teacher so far. “I had no clue how much I didn’t know,” she said.
She said her parents’ support has been critical to her success in business. “Without their support, I really don’t think I’d be here,” she said.

OWNER: Brandie Backes

WHERE: 2308 McCullough Blvd., Tupelo

CONTACT: (662) 523-2648; Irony also is on Facebook.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The Sunday Journal spotlights a locally owned business. To nominate a business, contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@journalinc.com.

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal


GUNTOWN – The Lee County Sheriff’s Office continued its search Saturday for a missing 17-year-old.
Joshua “Guy” McMillen was last seen on Thursday evening near his home off of Highway 348 on County Road 417 near Rock Bottom Creek in Guntown.
Sheriff Jim Johnson said deputies and the fire department have searched the area that includes Rock Bottom Creek and a watershed water area behind his home.
Joshua “Guy” McMillen is 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 160 pounds. A neighbor said he suggested he might head to Memphis or the nearby Rock Bottom Creek.
Guntown and Birmingham Ridge volunteer fire departments had about 20 people out searching until Saturday evening.
Police said Joshua left home around 8 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday. The sheriff’s department has checked with relatives, neighbors and empty houses in the area.
The McMillens said they are distraught over his disappearance. Joshua requires daily medication for a mental illness and is not believed to have taken any clothing or medication when he left.
Bruce McMillen, Joshua’s father, said the family has checked with friends and family members he has stayed with in the past. The family reported the missing teen Thursday evening.
If you have seen Joshua, call the sheriff’s department at (662) 841-9040.
sarah.robinson@journalinc.com

By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal

The U.S. House of Representative rejected the 2013 omnibus farm bill Thursday.
“I am very disappointed,” Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., said. “This continues to put us on a fiscal path we cannot sustain.”
The legislation required a simple majority, or 218 votes, to pass, but the vote was 234-195 against.
Nunnelee said a no vote was an example of Democrats’ unwillingness to consider “basic reforms” to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as the federal food stamp program.
Nunnelee said payments to federal entitlement programs would continue but supports for agriculture programs, including crop insurance subsidies, would be suspended if legislation is not enacted by the Sept. 30 deadline.
“The agriculture community and our economy need the certainty that comes with a five-year farm bill,” said U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
The vote lacked the full support of House Republicans, with 62 voting against the bill. Twenty-four Democrats and 171 Republicans, including Nunnelee, voted to pass the measure.
Nunnelee said that although he could not speak on anyone’s behalf, he believes Republicans who voted against the bill did so because cuts to the SNAP program were not deep enough.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R.-Miss., said, “I am hopeful today’s vote amounts to only a small bump in the road. I believe the House possesses the determination to work out their differences and find a way forward.”
The Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 passed the Senate 66-27 with bipartisan support on June 10.
The current bill eliminates direct payments to farmers and replaces them with subsides for crop insurance premiums.
Leaders of the House Republicans have struggled to gain party-wide support on the level of cuts to the federal food stamp program.
The House version of the bill called for more than $20 billion from the food stamp program over the next 10 years, while the Senate version called for just more than $4 billion in cuts to the program.
The SNAP program accounts for 75 to 80 percent of the budget, which according to some estimates could cost taxpayers as much as $995 billion.
sarah.robinson@journalinc.com