COLUMN: Fresh tomatoes, fresh perspectives,and the long view

It was 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning recently and the Tupelo Farmer’s Market was hopping.
People were elbow-to-elbow at one vendor with fresh peaches. Virtually every table under the pavilion was laden with bright red tomatoes. Squash, okra, peas, corn, cucumbers, peppers and zucchini abounded. Baskets of blueberries tempted, as did the breads and other baked delights.
But what was really special about the Farmer’s Market that day – and any day, really – were the conversations and connections. Friends and neighbors chatted with each other, and with the people who grew the food they were buying.
Purchases made were business exchanges, but they were more than that. They were the beginning or continuation of mutually beneficial relationships. They were validations of the work of neighbors and the importance of local interdependence. They were blows struck for food that actually tastes good.
The kind of vibrant, bustling farmer’s market evident in Tupelo certainly isn’t unique; it’s a growing phenomenon in lots of places in Mississippi and across the country. But it’s right in line with this community’s heritage of recognizing that town and rural folks’ interests are inextricably linked, and doing something about it.

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Within sight of the Farmer’s Market lies Fairpark, Tupelo’s visionary mixed-use, urban renewal neighborhood. Slowly, surely, it is becoming what its advocates envisioned.
Think back a few years. Remember what was down there, between the railroad tracks that run parallel to Front Street and Highway 45? Not much. The area has been transformed from an unproductive eyesore to a bright new center of business, government and community activity.
The most optimistic among the project’s advocates said the vision of a thriving residential, retail, restaurant, entertainment and governmental district would take about 10 years to fully realize. It’s been 10 years since the city issued bonds for the project, and all that was planned is not yet evident. But given that in these last 10 years we’ve experienced a garden-variety recession, the 9/11 attacks and their economic fallout, and now the most severe economic contraction since the Great Depression, it’s remarkable what’s already been built.
People who haven’t been to Tupelo in a while are impressed when they see the evolving new face of the city. First-time visitors recognize the significance of what’s developing there.
A city that lets its downtown deteriorate will inevitably see the problem spread, affecting businesses and neighborhoods elsewhere. Downtowns are where people draw their overall perceptions of a city. They are the heart of any city. Tupelo made a wise decision years ago to ensure the stability of its downtown by turning the liability of an abandoned and idle old fairgrounds area into a tax-producing, quality-of-life-enhancing asset.
A long-term view of the Fairpark project as a whole has gotten it this far – and will get it where it needs to go.

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Lots in the paper about Toyota in the past week, and everyone’s been trying to read the tea leaves. There remains every reason for confidence in the future of the Blue Springs facility, whatever it produces and whenever that may be.
Everyone locally has done what they can. Market conditions and the overall economy will dictate the whats and whens, so patience is a necessity – and so is perspective.
Just as thinking back a few years on the old fairgrounds area can provide a proper perspective on Fairpark progress, a similar journey not too far back in time illuminates the Toyota situation. Ten years ago, there was not even the seed of an idea of attracting anything on this scale and at this level. There was no place for anything like it to go. There was no multi-county alliance, nor even any legal way to create one. But there were the beginnings of concern about the gradual erosion of Northeast Mississippi’s manufacturing base.
Today, well, we’re almost there. The site is ready. The building is set for equipping. The company’s commitment remains.
It’s all about keeping things in perspective. And taking the long view.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal