By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – A public hearing Tuesday about a series of proposed road projects evolved into a passionate debate about the city’s future.
At issue was whether Tupelo should continue a 10-mill property tax levy for the Major Thoroughfare Program or divert some of that money to neighborhood revitalization.
The Major Thoroughfare Program comes up for renewal in May and, if voters extend it another five years, it will widen and improve several high-profile city streets.
But recent census data confirms a long-suspected trend of Tupelo’s middle-class decline, and Mayor Jack Reed Jr. recommended investing some of the MTP’s money into stopping that trend. His proposals include a college tuition guarantee program for Tupelo High School graduates and a neighborhood redevelopment program.
“It is precisely my duty as chief executive officer of the city of Tupelo to constantly reassess if we are aligning our needs and our resources,” Reed said at the public hearing. “I am simply not willing to ignore our challenges and sweep them under the rug.”
The hearing was set for residents to weigh in on the MTP’s proposal for its next five-year phase, which voters will approve or deny in a May 3 special election.
What’s at stake?
Proposed improvements include widening portions of Eason and Veterans boulevards, East Main, South Gloster, South Thomas and West Jackson streets, as well as adding right-hand turn lanes to North Gloster Street near The Mall at Barnes Crossing.
Projects will cost in excess of $23 million and take five years to complete.
“We feel very strongly this is a good program,” said MTP oversight committee Chairman Greg Pirkle at the hearing. “It is necessary for the continued growth of Tupelo.”
Agreeing with Pirkle were at least nine residents who spoke publicly in favor of the program’s proposed phase, which would be the fifth in its 20-year history.
“For a city to prosper and do well, we’re going to have to build new roads,” said farmer and business owner Mitchell Scruggs, adding that the program needs even more than the annual $4 million generated by the current property tax levy.
Scruggs owns Scruggs Farm, Lawn amp& Garden store on Tom Watson Drive, which the MTP had identified as a possible connector street to the Barnes Crossing shopping district – if money becomes available for a bridge.
Others agreed with Scruggs, saying continuing the Major Thoroughfare Program is the best way to preserve and revitalize Tupelo.
“This is good economic development,” said Duke Loden, an industrial broker and developer. “Having these five lanes to get around Tupelo makes it easy for the shoppers, the workers and the residents.”
Two former City Council members – Dick Hill and Carolyn Mauldin – also spoke in favor on continuing the program.
Several more specifically cited the need to complete the five-laning of South Gloster Street, a project that originally was scheduled for the current phase but got postponed due to budget overruns.
Among this group of speakers was Rob Hudson, president of Hudson Management and owner/operator of the McDonald’s restaurants in Tupelo. He also belongs to the South Gloster Business Association.
But Hudson also said that, as a private citizen, he recognizes Tupelo’s other challenges and commended Reed for raising the issues.
“Roads have got to be built – no doubt about that – but I think about the reality of the middle class leaving this town, and I think in terms of the economic impact it’s having,” Hudson said. “I’m proud this is on the radar screen. I hope it’s not too late.”
Seven speakers agreed with Hudson and publicly spoke out against fully funding the MTP, favoring instead a diversion of its funds to what they consider more pressing needs.
Former Tupelo Public School District Board Trustee Shawn Brevard compared the city to a family with several children. For the past 20 years, she said, the MTP received the majority of attention and funding. But now Tupelo’s other children – neighborhoods, schools and parks – need some love.
“A vote for the Major Thoroughfare Program is a vote against other needy members of the family,” Brevard said. “We love you, Major Thoroughfare, but it’s time to let your other siblings have a piece of the 10-mill pie.”
Seeking a balance
Others supporting the mayor’s alternative plans said they don’t oppose the Major Thoroughfare Program but instead favor a balance between the two priorities.
City Planner Pat Falkner praised the MTP, saying it’s because of the program’s success that Tupelo now can focus on other needs.
And Judy Brown, who chaired the committee responsible for the city’s current comprehensive plan, said the MTP needs to exist – just not independently of the comprehensive plan. That plan recommends neighborhood revitalization, sidewalks and green spaces.
“This really isn’t about one program and its merits,” Brown said. “It’s about how that program fits in the overall development of the city.”
Resident Lynn Holland also said he supports the Major Thoroughfare Program, but not at the expense of neighborhood revitalization.
“If it goes to the ballot as currently proposed,” Holland said, “I’ll vote against it and I’ll encourage others to vote against it.”
The City Council listened but did not comment during the hearing, which lasted more than an hour.
Council members are set to vote on the Major Thoroughfare Program’s proposal at their next meeting March 22. If they vote to approve the proposal, it will go to the public for a special election May 3.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.