LLOYD GRAY: Tupelo's legacy of innovation put to the test

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Two weeks ago, a Tupelo delegation returned from Kansas City with the community’s fourth All-America City Award in hand.
Two days from now, the City Council is scheduled to vote on a plan designed to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods and strengthen its middle-class.
There’s a connection.
It’s not that the All-America City Award by itself defines what the city should do in response to its current challenges. But this award – and the three previous ones the city received in 1967, 1989 and 1999 – were given for innovative approaches to complex problems, the kind that most cities throw up their hands about, squabble interminably over or simply ignore.
The All-America City Awards don’t define Tupelo’s legacy of solution-oriented policy and programs; they reflect it. That legacy involves a continuous, unbroken pattern of public-private partnerships. The private sector has always driven progress in Tupelo, but with the recognition that public resources are essential to achieve some goals for the common good.
Think of just a few examples:
- The Major Thoroughfare Program, a unique initiative now 20 years old in which Tupelo residents voluntarily and repeatedly tax themselves to upgrade key roads and improve traffic flow under plans developed and overseen by a volunteer citizen committee.
- The one-quarter cent local sales tax approved by voters in the late 1980s when it became clear that Tupelo’s aquifers were depleted and the city would soon face a crisis-level water shortage if a solution weren’t found.
- The city-financed conversion of an abandoned downtown shopping mall into a multi-purpose arena that has hosted a wide range of entertainment, sports and other public events through the years.
n The city’s issuance in 1999 of $22.7 million in bonds to turn an underutilized eyesore – 50 acres at the entrance to downtown – into a multi-use center for government and business offices, the first downtown hotel in decades, a conference center, restaurants, shops and residences, and with much more room for development, all the public investment already recouped.
These are a sampling from a much longer list of Tupelo projects that used public resources to generate economic activity and improved quality of life for city residents. And of course the jobs-creating engine for Tupelo and Lee County – the Community Development Foundation – has long blended private sector support with public funding to achieve its goals.
In short, the idea embodied in the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan of leveraging public assets to meet the challenges Tupelo faces is hardly new for the city. It is the practice that for nearly seven decades – sometimes in the face of opposition predicting dire results – has produced a nationally heralded model of rural community and economic development, a model that is now in need of reinvigoration and renewal.
The process through which this plan evolved is also typical of the way Tupelo has fleshed out issues in the past – taking ideas and attempting to meld them into consensus. All of this has been done in transparent fashion, with discussion and debate ongoing for six months now.
Most communities would never have gotten this far with such a plan. The bias for inaction or divisive factionalism that permeate so many cities with festering problems would have prevailed by now. But Tupelo has always considered itself a different kind of city not weighed down by the usual agents of inertia, divisiveness and decline.
That first All-America City Award in 1967 was the epitome of this distinctiveness. It came at a time when the rest of Mississippi was still fighting a last-gasp battle to maintain racial segregation. Tupelo, meanwhile, had its collective mind on peaceful integration of its schools and economic opportunities for all its citizens. That 1967 award made an incredibly positive statement to the world about Tupelo, and to the city about itself.
Today Tupelo faces challenges unique to this stage of its development, but that all cities of a certain size eventually confront. Most don’t face the problems squarely until it’s too late, if then.
It’s not too late for Tupelo, but the clock is running. The fact that the plan is not perfect, or that it won’t by itself solve all of Tupelo’s problems, aren’t reasons to reject it. It’s time to move ahead with a targeted effort in line with Tupelo’s heritage of innovative response to civic challenges – to live up to the accolades and the achievements that produced them.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.