By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Municipal officials prepared and served barbecue Monday to east Tupelo residents who, months earlier, had dominated a city function with their strong turnout.
The dinner, which drew about 65 people, was Tupelo’s reward to the Presley Heights Neighborhood Association. It had the strongest representation of any residential group at the city’s Neighborhood Connections event in March.
Of that event’s roughly 400 attendees, 53 came from Presley Heights. Mayor Jack Reed Jr. promised them then an old-fashioned barbecue served up by city officials.
This week, Reed and all seven City Council members made good on that promise.
“It’s our way of thanking them for their leadership,” Reed said during the meal at the JT Neely building in Veterans Memorial Park. “It’s our belief that the way to have a good town is to have great neighborhoods, and they obviously care about theirs.”
Residents old and young sat elbow-to-elbow at long tables and chatted among themselves and with city officials. In addition to council members and their spouses, some department heads also attended the event.
“It’s a good turnout,” said Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis. “It’s important that we have representatives from all over our city meeting with the people of this ward.”
Residents and officials alike took turns standing for introductions or accolades. Some stood to share stories about east Tupelo in the days before Elvis put it on the map. Others cracked jokes.
But behind the slaw, sauce and smiles was the sense that everyday residents and elected leaders can strengthen the community by working together.
“It’s only by people working together to improve their neighborhood that anything will happen,” said Rubye Del Harden, chairwoman of the Mayor’s Task Force on Neighborhoods, which had organized the Neighborhood Connections event in March.
“We want everyone to feel like they are not isolated,” Harden said. “We want them to feel like they are connected to their neighbors, and that each neighborhood is connected to other neighborhoods, and that all of them are connected to city.”
The city must then do everything in its power to support each of its neighborhoods, she said. Even the business community needs to get involved. And it has.
The task force recently launched a corporate sponsorship program whereby each of the city’s 15 neighborhood associations gets a corporate sponsor, which in turn provides several employee mentors to work with the residents.
Several banks, Kroger, Room To Room Furniture, the Daily Journal and other businesses already have joined. Others will be needed as more neighborhood associations form.
Task Force subchairman Bob Swartz said at least five neighborhoods have expressed desire at creating a city-recognized association since the launch of the task force in 2009.
Many of them see the potential for improving their area through cooperation and by earning municipal grants. Tupelo provides $3,000 in grants annually to each neighborhood association for a variety of community projects.
The task force recently sweetened the pot by announcing an additional $1,000 to the association that completes the best community project by September.
Tupelo Development Services Department Director BJ Teal credits the task force for creating excitement among existing associations and encouraging new ones to form.
She said her staff, which already acts as liaison between the city and the associations, will further its support with some new programs. Without revealing too much, Teal said the programs will emphasize revitalization while focusing on streets, sidewalks and trees.
“It all goes hand in hand with our 2025 plan,” Teal said, referring to the city’s newly adopted comprehensive plan, Tupelo 2025.
But on Monday, the city’s commitment to neighborhoods centered on food and fellowship. And east Tupelo resident Rhonda Cooper said it’s exactly what the people needed.
“It’s good to come together and get to know your neighborhoods,” said Cooper, a strong believer in the power of neighborhood associations. “It’s the best way to know what’s going on.”