TUPELO – Six mayors ago in 1996, Tupelo leaders warned of blighted neighborhoods scattered throughout the city.
They discussed housing scenarios if nothing changed the trend, mentioning declining owner-occupied property within the city and the idea that housing for middle-class families would continue to erode. They said existing middle-income housing in older neighborhoods would become rental property.
Adjusted for inflation, middle-income housing values then would be considered now to be in the $85,500 to $134,000 range.
Few in the real estate market and community leaders deny that the city should be concerned about these trends. In 2011, a plan related to neighborhoods prepared by the Community Development Foundation noted an out-migration of families and a reduction of owner-occupied homes in established neighborhoods, resulting in a decline in property values.
The report from two years ago said middle-income families leaving the city had created an unhealthy socioeconomic shift in the Tupelo Public School District, a growth trend common in “maturing” cities throughout the country, including Jackson, Meridian, Hattiesburg and Memphis, Tenn.
Fast-forward to this year, when the Tupelo City Council and Mayor Jason Shelton attended a city retreat to discuss concerns, strengths and goals for the city. A community development expert drew a curved line representing the life of a city and asked the elected officials where they’d place Tupelo. After a few seconds of silence, Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell spoke up.
“I’d say we’re in the early stages of decline,” he said.
For years, city leaders have warned of decline. This year, Tupelo began a pilot project under former Mayor Jack Reed Jr. to redevelop part of the West Jackson Street area, budgeting about $3 million from the city’s rainy day fund, currently at $18.5 million.
The plan includes using city tax dollars to buy 17-22 blighted properties, raze houses there and sell the property back to a developer who will build middle-income houses. The Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit company, is leading the project using city resources.
Jack Shultz, researcher of small communities in the nation and author of the 2004 book, “Boomtown USA: The 71⁄2 keys to big success in small towns,” has spoken to more than 400 communities in 44 states, covering 220,000 miles, and has taken about five visits to Tupelo since 2006.
Schultz identified Tupelo’s “vibrancy” as something that set it apart from most other places its size throughout the country, citing the area’s unique downtown, sense of place, economic development and job sector.
However, he warns that the city’s strengths may be rivaled by challenges of neighborhood decline and blight if not addressed.
“I think it’s extremely important,” Schultz said last week. “If you don’t do something to turn that around the cancer starts to spread.”
BJ Teal, director of Development Services for the city until recently, said part of her reason for resigning included Shelton’s lack of support for neighborhood redevelopment projects in the city.
Shelton has said he supports the West Jackson Street project but not others that involve the city buying property for redevelopment.
Teal was brought to the city in 2008 to help address the issue of declining neighborhoods. Her recent frank comments about Shelton’s difference in philosophy with her and lack of support may have led to her leaving her work at the city sooner than expected. Shelton decided last week to have city planner Pat Falkner assume the interim department head position and will ask the City Council on Tuesday to formally approve the interim change.
In the meantime, Shelton’s ideas for replacing Teal signal a marked shift in priorities in that department from neighborhood redevelopment to something not usually associated with municipal government – economic development.
Teal and many city planners and development professionals disagree.
“City government doesn’t build wealth or create jobs directly, but we do put services and utilities in place that give the private sector a place to work,” Teal wrote in the city’s 2011 fiscal year budget narrative.
But Shelton said Friday this will change with the next leader of the department that includes code enforcement, planning and permitting of commercial and residential developments in the city.
“I want a person to actually recruit businesses and industry to Tupelo, Mississippi,” he said.
Actual business recruitment has traditionally been the job of economic development organizations, such as the CDF for Lee County and Tupelo and the Mississippi Development Authority for the state.
Shelton insists that this new duty for the development services director will not interfere with economic development professionals already paid to market, promote and attract jobs to the community.
As for neighborhood redevelopment, the mayor said the next development services director will focus on this issue too. However, his plans and language related to it signal he finds the issue less important than his predecessors.
“I think whether it’s perception or reality, there’s a mind-set that some of the neighborhoods aren’t what they once were,” Shelton told the Daily Journal last week. “We have to do what we can to change the perceived or actual changes to our neighborhoods.”
Reed wanted to use $6 million or so of the city’s reserves for projects that include neighborhood revitalization. To contrast, Shelton wants to use $5 million of the city’s reserves to pay off low-interest bonds early.
Some City Council members agree with Shelton’s rejection of using city money to buy blighted property for redevelopment in targeted areas.
Newell said Friday that neighborhood issues could be helped through tax incentives, infrastructure improvements and code enforcement.
Other council members aren’t so quick to agree.
Willie Jennings of Ward 7 said he’s not generally for the city buying real estate but believes the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the needs of particular neighborhoods.
Councilman and contractor Lynn Bryan, whose Ward 2 includes the West Jackson redevelopment project, said Shelton shouldn’t be so quick to discount the project’s concept as a model for future neighborhood improvements.
“This system is a pretty good deal,” he said. “If the Neighborhood Development Corporation works it right and allows people to build slowly, they can build demand, which allows higher property values.”