JOHN OXFORD: Fairpark District assesses itself and seeks input

By John Oxford

Exactly four years ago today, Chris Rogers stepped down from his successful run as chairman of the Tupelo Redevelopment Agency, and I was chosen as the sacrificial lamb to take his place as the new volunteer chairman of the agency that oversees the Fairpark District Project in Downtown Tupelo.
At the end of this term, let’s look and see just how far we have come during one of the worst economic downturns in American history – and see just how far we have yet to go. As we have had our successes and challenges over this time, three areas that provide the greatest context of what is happening in Fairpark are its successful events, its residential challenges and its commercial business mix.
Over the past four years, Fairpark has become a hub of activity in the heart of downtown Tupelo. Rarely a weekend goes by that a wedding or reunion of some sort does not take place in front of City Hall. Among the many activities, we have had successful Elvis festivals, the Suzan G. Kohmen Race for the Cure, the GumTree 10K, Pigskins in the Park, Movies in the Park, the Down on Main free concert series, the Mississippi Barbeque Festival, Tupelo High School pep rallies, and much more. Even when an event is not taking place, children are more than often playing in the fountain and on the playground, reminding us of just how special a place Tupelo can be. With the addition of the new Elvis tribute statue from his homecoming concert – Fairpark will become one of the most photographed areas by visitors.
Juxtaposed to the success of Fairpark as a community gathering place through events, building out the residential area has been one of, if not the, greatest challenges our board has faced. As residential economic development has slowed down over the past four years, the appetite for developers in this area has also waned. Although none of us are happy with the lack of new houses in the Fairpark district over this period, we’ve done what we believed was prudent under budgetary constraints to try and keep momentum until a rebound occurs. We did this through two St. Jude home giveaways, giving us two new homes in Fairpark. In addition, we have recently added signage and updated some of our marketing to support inquiries about lots in the area. We still have the potential to build a house or two in the future but would obviously prefer a private developer to take this project.
As successful as the community events have been and as challenging as the residential area has become, the commercial area falls right in the middle. We have multiple successful businesses. Soon we will add Mug Shots, a popular Americana-style sports/music entertainment eatery. Over the past four years the commercial side has really started to take shape – with one glaring challenge – the entertainment district across from the Hilton Garden Inn. We’ve had many ideas, but no one knows what will work best nor how to harness the funding to make it happen. In the near future it is our goal to have our research done and begin some action and development on completing this portion of Fairpark. This land is just too valuable to get the venue wrong with a rushed project.
hat started as a $22 million bond to redevelop the rundown Fair Grounds in downtown Tupelo has returned over $60 million in economic development investment to the city with, still much more return to be cultivated. During the All America City competition last summer in Kansas City, the Fairpark project was referred to as the “front porch” of Tupelo. While we have found much success, our volunteer board at the Tupelo Redevelopment Agency will continue to do all that we can to face our challenges head on, and, above all else, continue to make Fairpark a place of which Tupelo’s citizens can be proud.
John S. Oxford is Director of External Affairs for Renasant Corporation in Tupelo. Contact him at joxford@renasant.com.