LLOYD GRAY: Stability, followed by reinvention

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

If you’re a Tupelo citizen who follows the community conversation, it’s easy to get the sense that a lot of things are unraveling these days.
People are upset with developments in the school system. The mayor and City Council are involved in sometimes contentious discussions about how to combat the out-migration of the middle class, made clear by the recent Census. A lot of negative energy is swirling around both issues, which are closely connected.
Finger-pointing and name-calling have been disappointingly commonplace in all this. But these are not problems that have suddenly occurred. They have been in the making a long time, many years in fact.
As I listened to a recent discussion at our church about congregational life cycles, I was struck by the parallels with the life cycles of communities, particularly with where Tupelo finds itself. Our pastor guided us through the stages: First, a period of birth, then growth, then stability. During the period of stability everything seems fine and no one sees the need to change anything. But if an organization does not “reinvent” itself during this period of stability, decline will inevitably set in.
Tupelo was stable for a while after substantial growth the last several decades of the 20th century. In the period of stability there were signs of developing problems, but because they weren’t acute, there was no sense of urgency about them. We expected what had worked for Tupelo before to continue to work.
So for years Tupelo did little as its attractive, affordable middle-class housing stock diminished and as older, once-stable neighborhoods deteriorated. Tupelo saw a pattern of growth away from the city, but didn’t regard it as a serious problem, or at least as a reason for concerted action.
As both white flight and academic challenges increased in Tupelo’s schools, little public acknowledgment of the need for a reinvigoration – a “reinvention” – of education in Tupelo was voiced until fairly recently, in the latter stages of the previous superintendent’s administration.
In short, Tupelo got complacent. It became a captive of sorts to its past success, so widely lauded and emulated, and lost some of the edge for innovation that had so long been a part of its character.
The good news is that the edge is returning. Tupelo is coming to grips with its problems and challenges in a very public way. While it isn’t a pretty sight on some days, it’s the picture of a city that has discovered that a period of instability – “reinvention” – is necessary to forestall decline.
A question that permeates all this is if Tupelo can remember, and hold on to, the principles that produced its past success. Is the basic character of Tupelo the same, or has it changed in a fundamental way? Has the city become a victim of its own economic success, attracting people who don’t have a sense of what created the economic magnate that drew them here in the first place?
There’s a lot of talk these days that suggests some in Tupelo – both elected officials and regular citizens – have forgotten the principles, such as public-private partnerships and a reasonable degree of risk-taking, that have defined this city at its best in the past. That’s evident in the discussion on the revitalization plans before the council.
There’s also evidence that the constructive citizen engagement that has always been central to Tupelo’s success has given way in some cases to mere carping and blame-casting that is the norm in so many other less successful communities.
We need a vigorous debate about the best ways to create a healthy future for Tupelo, but it needs to take place in an environment of respectful disagreement, not hostile confrontation or political gamesmanship.
Elected and appointed officials must contribute to a better environment with a stronger commitment to openness, collaboration and consensus-building.
In the organizational life cycle model, Tupelo is at the crossroads. One turn coming out of a period of stability leads to decline, the other to a cycle of renewed growth.
The road to renewal means leaving some old things behind while holding on to the core essentials, and above all it means decisive action, not acrimonious stalemate.
This is an uncomfortable time in Tupelo, but it can also be a very productive period in the city’s history. The biggest hurdle has been overcome with broad public recognition of the problems. There are no painless or risk-free solutions, but doing nothing is a sure recipe for decline.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.