By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The city will gain a track record of expertise in improving communities when members of a local nonprofit organization likely formally partner with Tupelo this week.
Tupelo-based Neighborhood Development Corporation has a 15-year history of trying to improve blighted neighborhoods and helping low-income residents become homeowners. That track record is what city officials want on their team as a part of ongoing West Jackson Street area revitalization efforts.
However, the level of success the organization has achieved has wavered through the years, proportional to resources available.
Former Tupelo Mayor Larry Otis helped create the nonprofit in 1998 as a partner organization in North Madison Street redevelopment efforts, starting as an organization of mostly bankers but including real estate agents and other professionals to help neighborhoods in Tupelo and Lee County reverse areas that had become magnets for crime activities and neglect, that threatened to spread blight.
“We have had the best of ideas during the whole tenure of this organization,” said George Taylor, an accountant, former city councilman and NDC board member since it began. “But it if you don’t have resources to kick-start the whole thing, it’s just not going to go anywhere.”
After weeks of debate of details, City Council members appear poised at Tuesday’s council meeting to formally tap board members of the nonprofit as part of a committee in a city partnership. That joining means city tax dollars will be combined with their real estate expertise.
This component of the West Jackson Street area redevelopment plan will anchor Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s vision for a pilot neighborhood revitalization as he leaves office. The 2010 Census sparked a call to action for efforts to improve city neighborhoods when data showed little growth in the city for a decade, compared to increases in neighboring suburbs in the county.
Reed’s concept has members of the NDC on the forefront of day-to-day action of negotiating and acquiring land from willing property owners in the West Jackson Street area, leading to improving existing property and even razing houses in poor condition. Eventually, the city would sell the land to developers who would build houses aimed for buyers in the middle income range.
The city will sign a legal agreement with the Community Development Foundation as a pass-through organization to fund the NDC up to $500,000 for the remainder of this fiscal year, ending in September.
Reach and resources of the NDC have been cyclical through the years, mostly based on support from larger, national organizations providing support. While starting with local support, NDC’s scope expanded dramatically in 2002 when it affiliated with national nonprofit now known as NeighborWorks America, which helps with neighborhood and community development.
Through this national partnership, the local organization had funding to hire a staff of three, including an executive director. For three years, the organization’s efforts included redevelopment of a half dozen residential properties in east Tupelo near Lawhon Elementary School, along with working with neighborhood associations and providing homebuyer education classes.
Through agreements with federal programs and national partners, NDC also provided assistance with down-payments and grants for small-scale home improvements.
“While we were going, we did some good things,” said Purnell, who remained in Tupelo and now works as an account manager at Waste Management.
But when the organization faced a lack of funding partners in 2004, it let go of paid staff and turned into an all-volunteer organization. It will remain all volunteer as it works with the city and uses the tax dollars on home purchases.
“Basically, it’s done homebuyer education and been a conduit for grant money,” said Thomas Mize of Merchants and Farmers Bank, a NDC board member since 2003.
With the members of the organization’s new role as a city partner in neighborhood redevelopment, it brings expertise in the field and private support, about $15,000 annually from area banks.
Taylor said he has confidence that the new partnership can help create a model for improving other troubled neighborhoods.
“It has all of the ingredients to accomplish all the city hopes as a pilot project to show what can be done if you have resources to do it,” he said.