By Joe Rutherford
TUPELO – Tennessee Valley Authority leaders, Tupelo officials and the community on Friday will celebrate 80 years to the day of TVA electricity flowing into Tupelo – the first contract city in the seven-state region of the nation’s largest publicly owned utility.
A history-rich event at 11 a.m. in the auditorium of Church Street Elementary School will mark the anniversary, and it is open to all at no cost.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, a corporation owned by the U.S. government, provides electricity for 9 million people in parts of seven southeastern states. TVA, which receives no taxpayer money and makes no profits, also provides flood control, navigation and land management for the Tennessee River system and assists utilities and state and local governments with economic development.
Church Street School, itself on the National Register of Historic Places, is adjacent Robins Field, the football venue where, on Nov. 18, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt ceremonially celebrated TVA and Tupelo’s status within the already rapidly expanding system across the rural Tennessee River Valley. A crowdestimated at 75,000 came from miles around for the Sunday morning event.
At its inception, TVA’s power came from hydroelectric dams that harnessed the power of the Tennessee River system and provided invaluable flood control, but when TVA’s dams reached optimum generating capacity, changes eventually were made by Congress ending its total support for TVA and allowing it to build other generating capacity like coal-fired plants, nuclear generators, natural gas and in more recent years, wind-powered and solar generation.
Richard Howorth, an Oxford businessman and former mayor, serves on the nine-member TVA board of directors. Howorth said in a recent interview with the Daily Journal that TVA is focused on efficiency moving forward – decisions and actions that will allow the authority to meet growth targets, retain affordability and meet environmental goals for clean power.
Howorth said a balance of generating methods – nuclear, coal, hydroelectric, natural gas and renewable, as approved by the corporate board in a 20-year plan – is essential for TVA’s success in the years ahead.
Howorth, who was active in the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association, funded by electric co-ops and municipal electric departments, said TVA’s relationship with its network of 155 cooperatives and municipal distributors remains essential.
“If there is one thing that has been driven into our heads as members of the board it is that the cooperatives and municipal distributors are TVA’s customers, and people like us are rate-payers,” Howorth said.
Former TVA Chairman Glenn McCullough Jr., a former Tupelo mayor, said TVA’s future rests on achieving a balance that must include a cleaner environment with retention of the authority’s historic role as a stimulator of jobs growth.
McCullough, an independent consultant who lives in Lee County, cited as examples the addition last week of Grammer AG’s 650 anticipated jobs in the Tupelo-Lee Industrial Park South, and 80 new jobs at General Atomics, an established industry across Highway 45 in the same development park.
TVA’s anniversary in Tupelo is in fact also about a 36-county alliance – 44 percent of Mississippi’s 82 counties – where TVA sells electricity to cooperatives and municipal departments.
The 332,000 households in Mississippi TVA rank as the third-largest consumer base – following Tennessee and Alabama – in the seven-state TVA region.
Electricity wasn’t uncommon in Mississippi by the time TVA was founded in 1933 and service came to Tupelo in 1934, but rural areas were in the dark.
University of Kansas historian Sara Morris wrote in a Mississippi history journal that in 1930 “84.8 percent of all U.S. homes in large urban areas and small towns had electrical service, but only 10.4 percent of rural homes had this luxury. In that same year, only 1.5 percent of Mississippi farm homes had electrical lights, the least of any state in the country.”
Tupelo’s TVA electricity in effect spread with rural electrification, and by 1940 the 1.5 percent had grown substantially, adding TVA’s economic impact to thousands of households.