Citizens Renewal meeting draws crowd

By Emily Le Coz

TUPELO – A citizen-led meeting to develop an alternative to the city’s revitalization plan drew roughly 100 people to the Link Centre tonight.

The meeting, which began at 7 p.m., began with a prayer by All Saints Episcopal Church Rev. Paul Stephens and a brief introduction by organizer Jim Newman.

Newman, a longtime Tupelo resident, called the meeting to challenge citizen apathy and tackle the city’s middle-income decline.

His remarks were followed by a short presentation by City Council President Fred Pitts about why Tupelo’s community has begun to decline. Pitts talked about a failure to address neighborhood deteriorating and inattention to the city’s own comprehensive plan.

Check back for updates as the meeting continues.

UPDATE 1 (7:20 p.m.)

Here’s a look at the strategies recommended in stalled, $14 million city proposal, called the Tupleo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan:

– Strategy 1 – A low-interest loan program to help homebuyers with down payments. Borrowers can get up to $50,000 from the city and pay it back over 15 years at 2.5 percent interest.

– Strategy 2 – A matching grant for homeowner improving their properties. Owners of older homes in urban renewal overlay districts can get up to $7,500 matching grants for structural, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, gas, roof, flooring, kitchen and bathroom improvements.

– Strategy 3 – A rental license program where landlords pay annual fees to help fund code enforcement. The latest proposal called for $25 annual license fees and $50 inspection fees.

– Strategy 4 – A program to pay college tuition for graduating high school students. Tupelo graduates can get two years of city-funded tuition assistance their junior and senior years of college as long as they apply all other aid first and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

The plan was developed by four committees of volunteer business leaders and organized by the Community Development Foundation. It was presented to the City Council in March and has been discussed during numerous meetings since then. A July 5 vote on the plan was tabled.

UPDATE 1 (7:25 p.m.)

Former Tupelo Mayor Ed Neelly speaks to the crowd about his opposition to the plan originally proposed by the city.

“I don’t think just spending money is going to solve our problem,” Neelly said, adding that some of the problems stem from a lack of discipline in the public school district.

He said the community can come together as a group and devise a better plan that doesn’t involve dipping into the city’s general fund or borrowing money from bonds.

Newman now speaks. He said that while he appreciates CDF’s participation – as well as those of the business leaders – to develop the city plan, he believes it’s a conflict of interest on their part. They would profit from the strategies in the plan.

He wants a new plan.

“I see two major problems,” Newman said. “We have excessive poverty, which is evidenced by the numerous of substandard housing, and we have a change in our education paradigm.”

UPDATE 3 (7:35 p.m.)

Newman recommends the following strategies:

• Create a science and technology school at the former Church Street Elementary School to draw in the best and brightest students from across the state.

• Offer Japanese language classes at Tupelo High School

• Build a new public library before building a new swimming pool.

“We must set our priorities,” Newman said. “These opportunities only come along once in a lifetime.”

He also provided a website address for his effort, called the Tupelo Citizens Renewal Task Force. It’s www.tupelocitizens.com.

UPDATE 4 (7:47 p.m.)

Others now speak:

• Ora Baldwin, 65 year old real-estate agent. She supports the home-improvement grant strategy and urges the city not to wait to pass some of the plan’s initiatives. She also wants the plan’s strategies voted on separately instead of bundled together.

• Ken Patterson, 1961 THS graduate. He said the city wants to bring in more middle-class residents but argues that nobody has yet defined the term. He also said no one has truly studied why people are buying homes outside Tupelo.

During his own tenure as a Tupelo public school teacher, Patterson said administrators frowned upon teachers that took a firm yet fair approach to discipline.

Among Patterson’s recommendations are that the city:
– Require its employees to live in Tupelo within six months of obtaining their jobs, which he called middle-income positions.
– Subsidize houses in the $120,000 to $150,000 range where young, middle-class families want to live.

UPDATE 5 (8 p.m.)

• Bill Hammond: He tells the crowd that he helped circulate a petition signed by numerous residents who wanted the plan to be put on a public ballot. He still wants the plan to go to a public vote.

“The City Council has failed miserably in informing the public as to what these programs actually consist of, how they’re going to be financed and who’s going to eventually benefit from the programs that are being proposed,” he said.

• Thomas Pickens, retired minister. He said the primary purpose of city government is to provide and protect. Yet he said Tupelo has yet to provide sidewalks in the areas it has annexed in the past.

He continues to talk about his opposition to past and future annexations and delves into details about his personal hardships from annexation.

(Note: Please forgive any name misspellings; I’m doing the best I can by ear.)

UPDATE 6 (8:10 p.m.)

• Matthias Fischer, says he doesn’t know why people leave Tupelo, but he knows why they’re not coming back.

“It’s the schools, schools, schools, schools, schools,” he said.

Until the city fixes its school problems, he said, nothing else it does will matter.

• Sister Angela Northington, a Tupelo resident. She says school discipline is lacking today.

UPDATE 7 (8:20 p.m.)

• A man who doesn’t identify himself approaches the podium. He says he moved to Tupelo from the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and that Tupelo is one of the best-kept secrets in the state.

But he said he opposes much of the city’s revitalization plan, including the strategies to provide a free college education and low-interest home loans. He called them unnecessary entitlements that will burden Tupelo with debt.

“If you can’t afford a down payment,” he said, “you have no business owning a home.”

He said the city needs a school where children can learn skills like masonry and mechanics. It also needs better code enforcement, he said.

UPDATE 8 (8:30 p.m.)

• Richard Lapak, a Tupelo resident who used to live in Cincinnati. He said teachers need better pay, and that will improve education.

Many people in the crowd vocally disagree. A retired teacher approaches the microphone and says children can learn given the proper environment.

“But until parents accept the responsibility … learning will never take place,” she said to loud applause. “Money is not the answer.”

Two men in the audience disagree with the retired teacher, saying money is indeed necessary for quality education.

Lepak regains the floor and notes that he “opened a can of worms.” He wants the group to find all the middle-class people who left Tupelo and determine why they left.

Only then, he said, can the city find a solution to the problem.

UPDATE 9 (8:37 p.m.)

• Newman gets up and recommends another strategy. He said the city should build a retirement community on South Gloster Street near where the new Highway 6 will come in. He said it’s close to the North Mississippi Medical Center and would draw more middle-class people to the area.

• Austin Marshall, who has lived in Tupelo about 45 years. He said education is the key to everything, and that it starts at home.

He also said those closest to the classroom know the best way to handle the situation.

“I think the teachers are fully qualified to tell the school board how to run the school business,” he said. “I don’t think we need to look outside the city of Tupelo to find a superintendent of education.”

He also said the city needs to beef up code enforcement.

UPDATE 10 (8:48 p.m.)

• Jane Carruth, a resident of downtown’s Mill Village historic neighborhood. She says “code enforcement needs to get off its rear ends and do something.”

She said the city has neglected her repeated calls about a code violation three doors from her for a year and a half.

“We can’t lay the blame of our problems on the City Council and the mayor,” she said. “It’s time the citizens took a stand. We move forward with this city.”

• Jason Pannell, a teacher who lives in Tupelo but doesn’t work in Tupelo. He said Tupelo’s administration won’t expel undisciplined students for fear it’d lower its enrollment numbers and lead to less funding.

He also opposes the strategies proposed in the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan because he claims it amounts to entitlements.

But he supports the plan’s strategy to cap the percentage of rental properties it allows in Tupelo. He also supports the plan’s proposed fee to landlords of $240 annually for a business permit.

UPDATE 11 (9:02 p.m.)

• Lisa Schwenk, a Tupelo resident who said she pulled her son out of high school and home schooled him because the public schools got so bad.

She says 40 percent of babies born in Tupelo are born to unwed mothers, which she called a problem. She also said residents can come together to provide services without tapping government resources.

• Robert Chaney, a Tupelo resident. He blamed the city’s police and fire protection for being less-than adequate and causing middle-class families to leave.

He wants the city to purchase dilapidated properties downtown and build parks where they can host their festivals.

He also urged residents to support interim TPSD Superintendent David Meadows.

UPDATE 12 (9:10 p.m.)

• Mike Stiles, who has lived in Tupelo 50 years. He opposes any government handouts, and he said the city must beef up code enforcement on a long-term basis.

“I think we all concur schools are the No. 1 problem, but the City Council cannot handle the school problem,” he said.

Instead, the city should focus on providing better services – police and fire protection, as well as city streets and code enforcement.

• Steve Monts, a Tupelo resident. He said the city can fund education through other means.

The meeting ends with Newman taking the podium. He said he noted all the solutions put forth by residents, but more meetings will be necessary to compile a report.