LLOYD GRAY: Tupelo faces challenges that require action

By Lloyd Gray / NEMS Daily Journal

This will sound harsh, but it’s true: The warning signs are there. Tupelo faces a slow but steady decline unless bold action is taken soon to reverse a troubling trend.
Recently released pre-census figures from the American Community Survey make that abundantly clear. Tupelo’s median household income has been stagnant for a decade while it has risen substantially elsewhere in Lee County. That means the proportion of poor people is rising in Tupelo and the middle class is declining.
No city can remain healthy without a substantial middle class. It’s really that simple.
These trends are hardly unique to Tupelo. They’ve happened earlier in bigger cities like Memphis and Jackson and in cities closer to Tupelo’s size like Meridian.
Older neighborhoods deteriorate as homeowners move or die and give way to renters. Land for new housing becomes scarcer and more expensive. New construction tilts toward more costly homes with higher margins for builders. Middle class families are priced out of the housing market, or just can’t find what they want, so they move to the surrounding area.
Gradually the city’s population becomes largely affluent and poor and not much in between. The affluent population grows older. The overall population begins to shrink.
The tax base declines, meaning higher taxes to support existing levels of services, or reductions in those services. Crime increases, accelerating the departure of city residents and harming city businesses. The public school system loses broad public enrollment, involvement and support across racial and economic divides. School bond issues become tough to pass and academic achievement wanes. The community loses its strongest source of unity, identity and family appeal. All these factors converge to make the city less desirable as a place to live, work and do business.
This is not a description of Tupelo today, but the trends point in that direction. It’s the city’s likely destination in the next 10 to 15 years if nothing is done.
The trends in Tupelo have racial dimensions – white flight to nearby communities, a higher percentage of minorities in the total population – but this is not essentially a racial issue. It’s about losing the middle class of whatever race, and it just so happens that the minority population is still disproportionately poor.
It’s essential that an awareness of these trends guides city policy decisions over the next few months and years. Tupelo still has time to act – but not as much time as we might think. There comes a point, as the cities mentioned above have discovered, when you’ve passed the tipping point and there’s not much you can do.
Make no mistake: Tupelo will eventually have the same chronic problems as Jackson or Meridian or an endless list of other cities if it doesn’t call upon its historic spirit of creativity and innovation that has solved problems and produced progress in the past.
That’s why a discussion like the one under way on the Major Thoroughfare Program is healthy for the city. The program has served a great and undeniably beneficial purpose, and commitments made – South Gloster and East Main, notably – should be kept. But might it be time to shift at least some of those 10 mills to other purposes, with the voters’ approval, such as neighborhood revitalization projects that can reverse blight and expand middle-class housing options?
Maybe the Thoroughfare program’s millage isn’t the right vehicle, but it’s imperative that the city find a way to invest more of its resources into the most critical issue it faces – holding on to and expanding its middle class.
It was Tupelo’s visionary thinking that led to the unique concept of a citizen-driven thoroughfare program. That same level of innovation is needed in the neighborhood revitalization and housing arena.
Otherwise, those of us who live in Tupelo will watch as our city, so long a uniquely vibrant and progressive leader in Mississippi and a nationally recognized model, becomes just another town with the same set of urban decay problems as hundreds of others. It will affect our economy and jobs and our quality of life – in the county and region as well as in the city.
Now is not the time for narrow, conventional thinking. That would only ensure that the trends continue in the wrong direction.
We’ve known about these trends for years. Efforts to address them have started and stalled. Some may think talking about these issues is bad for the city – that it overshadows the many good things still happening in Tupelo and gives people the wrong impression. But what would really be bad is to let any more time pass without a serious, sustained community conversation about reversing those trends – and a commitment to timely action.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.