Downtown Tupelo gets an outside perspective

By CARLIE KOLLATH / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – National experts departed Thursday on a good note, saying they felt confident that leaders and residents would be able to implement some of their suggestions to improve downtown Tupelo.
“I feel we brought a different way of looking at what’s here and a new perspective of how the city works for everybody,” said Steve Davies, the senior vice president of the Project for Public Spaces. “People drive and they don’t really think about, ‘Is this a good space or a bad space?'”
The Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association and the Mississippi Main Street Association last week hosted the pilot program of a national placemaking workshop from the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, and the National Trust Main Street Center, which is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Placemaking, according to PPS, is turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place you can’t wait to get through to one you never want to leave. It focuses on creating good spaces and connecting them with others.
Davies and other experts worked with Tupelo leaders, residents, downtown business owners and residents to critique downtown Tupelo and suggest improvements. They made lists of the best and worst places, along with places with the most opportunity.
For the workshop, the studied area was the Elvis Presley Birthplace west along Main Street to Crosstown.
One of the most discussed issues with downtown, Fairpark and the studied portion of east Tupelo was the lack of activity.
The experts and residents noted that destinations such as the Tupelo Farmers’ Market and the park at Fairpark are busy when there are planned activities, but not at other times.
Another issue that came up frequently during the week was that downtown could be more pedestrian friendly. For example, there aren’t crosswalks close to Fairpark, and the light at the intersection of Front and Main streets doesn’t allow much time for pedestrians to cross.
Residents and experts also said the downtown area doesn’t feel connected. The downtown shopping core, the Fairpark District and Main Street in east Tupelo feel and function as three different places, they said.
During the meetings, the experts singled out the Fairpark District as one of the things that makes Tupelo’s development project different from other Main Street communities.
“Physically, it’s very different in that you’ve had the opportunity through the fairgrounds and the Tupelo Redevelopment Agency to triple the downtown district,” said Lauren Adkins, assistant director for field services at the National Trust Main Street Center. “It has happened before but it’s rare enough that I can tell you the names of the other communities that have it.”
As for the other issues, Davies said they are normal when compared to other cities the group has worked with in the past.
“You’ve got the places,” he said. “You just need to do a few little things – and big things.”
PPS and the National Trust made several short- and long-term improvement recommendations last week. More recommendations will come in the written report they submit in the next month or two.
Of the recommendations so far, some of the goals can be accomplished in a few months, while others might take a few years.
“We definitely see this as a long-term plan with a lot of short-term achievements along the way,” Adkins said.
Adkins said the next steps include getting more contributions to downtown Tupelo’s online map, where anyone can tag the best and worst places. The address is www.pps.org/placemap/tupelo.
The Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association board also was advised to prioritize the projects after the experts submit their written report. The experts recommended seeking out partners for specific projects.
Adkins said that because Tupelo’s Main Street program has a history of following through with projects, she believes the group will be able to move beyond the brainstorming process.
“The record of implementation has put you in really rare air in the Main Street world,” she said. “This is one of the very rare times that Main Street has embraced the placemaking process. We hope that we shorten the time between brainstorming and implementation.”
Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.