BRIDGING THE GAP: Tupelo tackles demographic change

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – This year’s census data confirmed the city’s worst fears: Predominantly white, middle-income families were fleeing Tupelo for the suburbs and widening the community’s disparity gap.
Tupelo’s population grew less than 1 percent, according to the 2010 Census, while its northern bedroom communities swelled by double digits – 40 percent in Saltillo and 76 percent in Guntown, for example. At the same time, Tupelo’s median household incomes and home values lagged behind those of its nearest suburbs.
And nowhere did that data translate better than in the school district. Once a shining star among its statewide peers, Tupelo’s public school system lost its stellar rankings as it took on increasingly more minority and low-income students and the attendant racial academic achievement gap showed up in district test scores.
In trying to address the city’s own municipal woes, the mayor and City Council struggled with how they also impacted the schools and vice versa. The two were inextricably linked.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. tried to address both areas with a comprehensive plan to improve neighborhoods, increase home ownership, reduce rental properties and give all graduating high school students four years of tuition to the state public university of their choice.
It was called the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan, crafted with the input of numerous business and community leaders, and would cost the city $15.7 million over five years.
But it faced fierce opposition by many residents and several council members, who argued the Tupelo Public School District should solve its own problems first.
“The problem isn’t the neighborhoods, it’s the schools,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington after a council work session in January.
Whittington later approved of the reinvestment plan, but it ultimately failed to achieve enough support to pass the full council.
What did pass was a measure to allocate $600,000 annually to neighborhood revitalization. The funds will be spent on buying dilapidated properties, demolishing them and preparing the lots for development.
Also approved was a new rental permit program that charges landlords higher fees for failed inspections and raises funds for more code enforcement.
Together, the measures aim to clean up blight and attract more middle-income families to the city. If any of the city’s population is helped by the measure will be seen in the coming years.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com