LLOYD GRAY: Balancing celebration, challenges

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s State of the City address last week had the air of a pep rally – a big crowd, upbeat message, cheers for the home team.
Yet this was no sweep-the-problems-under-the-rug political speech. The mayor acknowledged the serious challenges Tupelo faces and called for collaborative action to address them.
But it was “positive” in that it recognized people and accomplishments over the past year. The crowd included city employees from every department, and it was a chance for Tupelo citizens to hear and cheer the good work they’ve done.
The past year was a rough one in Tupelo. The hard realities of stalled population growth, deterioration of older neighborhoods, instability in the public schools – along with some bitter public squabbles in response – all combined to produce an increasingly unsettled atmosphere, even a sense of dysfunction.
Tupelo isn’t used to that. It has long taken pride in its can-do attitude and its ability to solve problems. Prolonged public squabbling without any resolution of issues hasn’t been the norm.
In that context, it’s helpful to pause, step back and recount that the city is in good financial shape, that trends in key areas like sales tax collections and home construction permits are headed in the right direction and that projects both small and large are under way or on the horizon. It’s also right to acknowledge the people who uphold the laws, fight the fires, keep the streets, sewers and lights functioning, manage the parks, plan for the future, enforce the codes, promote tourism and do all the other things city government is supposed to do.
In other words, an occasional celebration of people and accomplishments – even in difficult times – is appropriate and necessary. It helps underscore, as Reed said, that the city has the capacity to respond effectively to what is not going well. And Tupelo’s civic heritage – its “usable past,” as sociologist Vaughn Grisham has described it – is there as a catalyst.
It must be acknowledged that the city’s heritage has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that there shouldn’t be public disagreements or intense debates about community issues – that airing problems openly and honestly is inappropriate or harmful. To be sure, how citizens approach the conversation about problems and solutions is key. Mutual respect, civility and forbearance in the midst of disagreement are essential. But Tupelo wouldn’t have made the progress it has through the years if people had been satisfied with the status quo.
If anything, the problems that have festered in recent years have gotten worse because there was a reluctance to acknowledge them, or the simple complacency produced by uninterrupted success. In those cases, our cheering may have blinded us to what was happening.
But now that the problems are out in the open – and the debates about solutions are in full throttle – a little celebration on the side can only help.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.