Tupelo revitalization plans unveiled

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A sweeping city revitalization plan to stop middle-class decline will cost taxpayers $15.7 million but generate nearly four times more in community reinvestment, according to a report issued Monday to the city.
Full details of the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan were unveiled to the City Council after a month-long study by four private committees. The committees were organized by the Community Development Foundation and composed primarily of local business leaders.
They delved into a proposal initially floated earlier this year by Mayor Jack Reed Jr., who reacted after recent census data showed a scant 1 percent population growth for the region’s biggest city.
Rural Lee County and its northern suburbs, in comparison, saw their populations and median household incomes grow by much larger margins.
“At this time in our community, we’re at the balance of a true tipping point,” said Mitch Waycaster, one of the presenters and the senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Renasant Bank.
“Doing nothing causes us to fall into a further degredated state, a state of losing citizens and homeowners and straining systems,” he said. “It could eventually cost the taxpayers, as sales and property tax revenues could continue to decline, causing a tax increase just to keep the level of service we’re accustomed to.”
Each group took one aspect of the four-pronged plan and developed strategies and cost estimates, as well as funding mechanisms. Although each of the plan’s components could be implemented separately, they’re designed as an interconnected blueprint for Tupelo’s future.
The plan includes the following strategies, each of which were presented by spokespeople from the various committees:
• Provide low-interest loans to prospective home buyers.
• Reduce the cost of public infrastructure for new development.
• Provide grants to improve existing homes.
• Establish a fund for the city to buy and remove blighted property.
• Reduce rental housing to 25 percent by restricting new permits.
• Charge landlords higher business permit fees, and use the money to boost code enforcement.
• Offer college tuition assistance for Tupelo’s graduating seniors.
The entire plan would cost the city $15.7 million, with $14 million raised through urban renewal bonds. It wouldn’t require a tax increase, said city Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris.
In return, the plan would generate an estimated $61.5 million in new investments for Tupelo homes and neighborhoods over the next five years.
“This plan doesn’t cost us,” Waycaster said. “It pays us, and it saves us for a better future.”
Not included in the plan but mentioned during the presentation was the role of the Tupelo Public School District in the city’s future. Several people during the meeting noted the district’s declining image and academic standing and said it must improve for Tupelo to truly recapture its middle class.
“We must recognize our schools are facing tremendous challenges,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of the CREATE Foundation and one of the presenters. “They have not developed overnight. They have been years in the making.”
Whitfield said the community must support the school district in its efforts to improve but warned that those efforts must be open and transparent.
City Council members listened but didn’t comment or ask questions during the one-hour session at City Hall, which drew about 50 people. Instead, a second meeting scheduled for March 29 will invite more dialog between municipal officials and the committees.
It’s unclear when the council will vote on the plan, but Reed said the sooner the better.
“The depth of investigation and thought that went into each part of the plan I thought was impressive – every single one of them had experts in the field looking at how to make a difference,” he said. “I honestly don’t see how a council person interested in the future of Tupelo could vote against it.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.