LLOYD GRAY: Tupelo’s fidelity to its heritage is in for a test

By Lloyd Gray / NEMS Daily Journal

Tupelo is about to undergo a critical test of its political will. That test will determine whether the city will continue a tradition of innovative responses to imposing challenges or simply throw up its hands as so many other cities have done.
Tupelo’s future as a place where people want to live and as a model that others want to emulate hangs in the balance.
The willingness of Tupelo’s citizens and political leaders to invest in revitalizing their neighborhoods and reversing the outmigration of the middle class is a test of community character as well. Do we still believe in the future of Tupelo? Do we still hold to a can-do mindset that sees beyond obstacles to solutions or will we retreat into a recitation of all the reasons we can’t do something? Will we build on Tupelo’s legacy of success in the face of difficult odds or we will decide that this time we’re just not up to it?
Other Mississippi cities – most in fact – have been content through the years to settle for the status quo or worse. Tupelo has been different, time and again.
In the 1940s, it saw the need to diversify its economy and shook up the status quo, establishing the Community Development Foundation and pursuing an enlightened policy of industrial development.
In the 1950s and ’60s it built new schools and focused more intentionally than ever before on building a top-flight public school system that would draw people and outside investment to the city. At a time when other communities were abandoning public schools rather than integrate them, Tupelo calmly and methodically brought its black and white students together peacefully.
In the 1960s, while most of the rest of Mississippi was embroiled in civil rights turmoil, Tupelo achieved national recognition and All-America City status by keeping its focus on educational opportunity and economic development. When racial unrest finally hit the city in the late 1970s, biracial efforts by people of good will brought calm, collaboration and progress.
In the 1980s, when rapidly declining underground water supplies threatened Tupelo’s ability to sustain its industrial and residential base, leaders formulated a proposal and the people voted a quarter-cent tax on themselves to solve the problem.
In the late 1980s, the city realized its tax base might be in long-term jeopardy if it didn’t expand, and it undertook an annexation that doubled the size of the city. In 1990, realizing its school facilities were inadequate for the future, it passed the largest school bond issue in Mississippi history to that point – $17 million – and built a new high school.
Around that time Tupelo came to an understanding that its form of government was inadequate for a growing city, and voters approved a new form more suited to Tupelo’s changing circumstances.
As the city grew and drew people from around the region to its jobs every day, the streets were crowded and traffic flow impeded. Again, Tupelo recognized a problem that could curtail its future prospects, and it acted: Voters authorized a five-year, 10-mill levy to develop a system of major thoroughfares around the city. It’s been reauthorized three times since.
The next year, the city took an abandoned eyesore – an old downtown mall – and began turning it into a coliseum and convention center. Later in the 1990s, the city defied the naysayers and issued $22.7 million in bonds to overhaul an underused, uninviting area of downtown, creating a new face for the city and the prospect of further development for years to come. To top the decade off, Tupelo passed another school bond issue.
This is Tupelo’s history and heritage. It’s a city uncommonly willing to rise to the unique challenges of the times.
Today there is no question that Tupelo’s biggest challenge is stabilizing and revitalizing neighborhoods, stemming middle class flight and reinvigorating what has always been the city’s crown jewel – its public school system. All of these are related, and all will require a willingness by public and private sector leaders to take risks and question the status quo.
It’s worth remembering that most of Tupelo’s past initiatives encountered skeptics and, in some cases, strong opposition. They weren’t universally popular, but public and private sector leaders pressed ahead anyway, knowing they were needed, and ultimately convincing the citizenry of that need.
We are clearly at a turning point in Tupelo’s history. To be true to its heritage, and to secure its future, the city has no choice but to act.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.