Quality of life is a key to region's future

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – You’re a single, college-educated twentysomething with identical job offers in Tupelo, Chicago and Birmingham.
Whichever city you pick could become your long-term residence – the place you get married, buy a house and start a family.
So you do what anyone in this coveted demographic does – you get online and compare cities.
Chicago boasts the best nightlife but also the highest crime rate; Tupelo’s by far the safest city, but has the smallest available dating pool; Birmingham offers the best of both worlds, except its air quality ranks even lower than Chicago’s.
Countless factors drive a person’s decision to settle in one place versus another, but after job and family, it typically comes down to quality of life: Which community offers the best amenities to attract and sustain the young, educated workers who will become its business and professional core?
As Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi plan for the future, economic experts say it must further develop and promote its unique qualities of life.
In doing so, it probably won’t attract the same talent pool eyeing Austin, Denver or Seattle – all three of which ranked among the country’s top destinations for young, job-seeking college grads.
But it could woo someone whose go-to cities included Jackson or Southaven or Birmingham.
“The people we have relocated here have told me it’s the ease of life, the short commute, the safe environment, it’s laid out conveniently, there’s access to parks and recreation,” said David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation, which recruits employers to the region.
CDF will focus the next decade on developing a trained pool of quality-control engineers and quality-maintenance technicians, both of which are in high demand and earn about $50,000 annually.
Rumbarger said the region will focus on those job titles and compete for those people.
He’ll tout Northeast Mississippi’s benefits as part of the recruitment package.
“And as corny as it sounds, they find true, good friends quickly,” Rumbarger said. “It seems like we adapt out-of-towners better. They tell me there are not as many cliques as the towns they came from.”
Quality of life means different things to different people, but a comparison of national community rankings generally include health and life expectancy, weather, culture and entertainment, commute time, air quality, job availability, income levels and educational opportunities.
Some of those categories determine Money Magazine’s annual list of America’s best small cities. Since the compilation started in 2005, just four Mississippi cities have placed in the top 100 – all were either suburbs of Memphis or Jackson.
Another best-of list, this time in Forbes magazine, found that most top-ranking cities included at least one major college or university. These institutions generally attract young, educated people and generate job opportunities, along with a host of cultural and entertainment venues.
Northeast Mississippi has two major universities – Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi – but neither main campus in its hub city of Tupelo.
Tupelo leaders, though, are trying to leverage the city’s proximity to both universities, as well as nearby Itawamba Community College, and become a central point in the region’s diverse higher learning activities.
“There are some opportunities ahead of us with our geographic position between Ole Miss and State,” said Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Neal McCoy. “Transportation has eased the availability of both schools.”
Stewart Brevard left Tupelo after high school to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Now as she prepares to graduate with a double major in psychology and human and organization development, Brevard said she someday might like to return. But not yet.
“If Tupelo could do more things specifically geared toward recent college grads and young professionals, that really does draw people back,” she said. “It’s hard to compete – small town versus big town as far as opportunities for our age group. Like Nashville, there are concerts and restaurants and shops and cultural activities. It’s hard to draw people away once they’ve experienced that.”
Ultimately, Brevard says she’ll stay in Nashville at least two more years to participate in the Teach for America program. After that, she said, she’ll weigh her options. Tupelo will be among them.
But it’s hard to predict the future. Brevard could settle in Nashville or one of its suburbs, have a family and never return. If she did, she wouldn’t be alone. Mississippi, including its mostly rural northeast region, has long been plagued by an outward migration of young, educated people to other areas – a phenomenon called brain drain.
People leave in search of better jobs and more money, according to research conducted after the 2000 Census. Sometimes those residents return, sometimes they don’t.
Combating that trend requires that Northeast Mississippi boost not only its job opportunities, but also its quality-of-life factors – education, health, safety, entertainment and recreation, among them.
Right now, the region trails both the state and the nation in terms of median household income, median home values, educational attainment and employment rates.
But it also boasts a low crime rate, good public schools, two major universities, ample access to outdoor recreational activities, and an increasing number of retail outlets, restaurants, concerts, plays, sporting events and festivals.
The uptick in those amenities has not been by accident.
“We’re lucky in that we’ve had a group of young professionals either who moved here, or who grew up here, went to college and came home, and they’re trying to incorporate those things into Tupelo rather than move somewhere where that already exists,” said Chris Root, chairman of the Tupelo Quality of Life Committee.
Formed in 2008, the committee has spent or pledged more than $101,000 on projects to enhance the community’s quality of life. Funding comes from a voluntary utility round-up program in which customers contribute the difference between their actual bill and the next dollar.
So far, it funded the successful Down on Main free summer concerts and the Pigskin in the Park event, the first year activities of the Mayor’s Healthy Task Force, including the Mayor’s Marathon and Fitness in Tupelo.
Other efforts include the planting of 150,000 daffodils in city parks and rights of way, contributions toward the Ballard Park Cross Country Trail and Veteran’s Park dog park, and sponsorship of municipal fitness programs.
“From a personal view, from a young professional view, I think it’s essential we attract the young professional,” said Root, a Tupelo native who returned to his hometown after graduating from Mississippi State University.
“It is absolutely proportional with how successful we’ll be at attracting young professionals and new graduates.”
Tupelo’s efforts have caught the attention of at least one Ole Miss student who said he seriously considers moving to the city after graduating.
“My friends and I look at Tupelo all the time because it has what we’re looking for,” said Zach Huffman, a sophomore studying public policy leadership in the Trent Lott Leadership Institute. “It has good public events, you know like at the BancorpSouth Arena, good public schools, a good job market, and there are things being built all the time. It provides so much more than it used to.”
The Houston native said his future might include law school and a stint in Washington, D.C., but he wants to return to this area.
“It’s like a pride deal,” he said. “You want to better your hometown, your home region.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.