Report: Tupelo economy changing

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Tupelo stockBy Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Economic characteristics for the city of Tupelo tracked during a 36-month period show significant shifts in people and families in poverty, and a lower median income for workers.

The information, recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-2012 American Community Survey, shows significant changes in key characteristics of workers and residents that impact the overall city in areas that have concerned Tupelo leaders for years.

The changes in characteristics of the city could suggest a pattern:

• More households in the city receive income from Social Security, an indication of more older and disabled residents, a 16 percent change to 31.1 percent.

• There is a nearly double increase in residents receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly called food stamps), at 19.6 percent.

• The median earnings for workers has declined 12.8 percent to $24,432.

• Income for more families and people overall dipped below the poverty level, both about 25 percent of the city residents.

• During the previous period, 117 renters in the city did not pay rent. In the most recent time frame, that number increased to 386, suggesting a higher number of residents receiving government assistance.

These changes are compared in three-year periods of 2007-2009 to 2010-2012. By examining a longer length of time, compared to single periods the Census assesses every decade, it increases statistical reliability of data for smaller cities like Tupelo.

These challenges were addressed in themes in the mayoral election earlier this year, when Jason Shelton was elected on a campaign that included attracting and retaining middle-income residents. This follows goals from former mayors Jack Reed Jr. and Ed Neelly, who both identified affordable and attractive housing as key concerns.

Shelton has less interest in the city buying properties as part of larger neighborhood redevelopment programs and wants to focus more on the city development services director working to recruit jobs and industry to the area. With BJ Teal, the city’s head of development services with a strong background in improving neighborhoods, recently leaving the city, Shelton said he plans to fill the position with someone with experience in directly recruiting business and industry.

Experts in community planning and development often say one of the best ways to improve economic characteristics of a place is by bringing in high-paying jobs.

David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation, which recruits businesses and industry to Tupelo and other parts of Lee County, said the organization “welcomes another person’s ‘shoulder to the wheel’ in the effort to create jobs in Tupelo. Our area is a model for economic development partnerships, and the emphasis on job creation by the Shelton Administration in this economy is encouraging.”

Tupelo isn’t alone in these types of lagging economic challenges. Many regions in the South and other parts of the country have taken longer to recover from the national 2007-09 recession. Real estate agents say the area’s housing market took its strongest hit in 2009 and continues to incrementally improve.

Jerry Emison, a Mississippi State University professor of political science and public administration with a doctorate in city and regional planning, said he believes the recession exposed “fundamental, underlying shifts in the economy that foreshadows public policy challenges” similar to those facing Tupelo.

A larger trend nationally that impacts Mississippi communities like Tupelo is the threat of a continued decline of manufacturing jobs that pay livable wages and an increase in service jobs that generally pay less. In Tupelo from 2010-12, the manufacturing sector made up 15.1 percent of jobs in the civilian workforce. The category including educational services, health care and social assistance, made up 26.1 percent of the city’s jobs.

Emison said to keep and recruit more of the middle class to Tupelo, it should target things like ensuring affordable homes exist and there is attractive quality of life. However, he emphasized the need for jobs that attract middle-class residents.

“Certainly, if they want to hold on to the middle class, they need to try to reverse the reduction of middle-class jobs,” he said. “But this is happening across the country.”

robbie.ward@journalinc.com