LLOYD GRAY: Finding a path to consensus is rarely easy

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Initiatives that improve a community usually don’t happen easily or without significant public debate and disagreement. Movement toward consensus can be a messy process.
Tupelo at the moment is experiencing the discomfort of this necessary evolution on at least two issues: downtown street proposals and historic preservation.
In the initial stages, the tendency is to adopt rigid positions. If people can continue to talk it out, they may reach the next stage in which questions are answered, concerns are heard and positions soften. If that happens, the stage is set for consensus and progress.
Nobody ever gets everything they want in such a process, and if the initiative is to succeed and endure, nobody should.
The clash of ideas and interests is inevitable. They can’t all be reconciled, and some will outweigh others. But resolution often depends on a willingness by all sides to keep from oversimplifying issues and seeing them in black and white terms.
The Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association’s vision for street improvements includes reducing traffic lanes on Main Street, facilitating bicycle and pedestrian traffic, putting in new landscaping and otherwise improving the look and feel of downtown.
For those who view Main Street primarily as an artery to move traffic as quickly as possible, this seems counterproductive. For those who believe cars and trucks speeding down the street impede business and endanger pedestrians, it’s a logical imperative.
These two ideas, on the surface, are in conflict, and one has to prevail. In the downtown master plan and in the Fairpark development, a guiding principle has been creating a pedestrian-friendly environment that intentionally slows traffic. This principle builds on observations about what has worked in successful downtown revitalizations in the Southeast and around the country.
But it’s not necessarily a win-lose situation that relegates the advocates of steady traffic flow to the sidelines. As the Main Street Association’s consultants have demonstrated, small changes such as better light synchronization can lessen the time it takes for vehicles to get through downtown – even as they travel at slower speeds.
Understanding this requires a re-examination of assumptions by opponents, as well as a willingness by advocates to hear concerns, explain themselves better, and be willing to make adjustments.
Historic preservation is an issue that begins with an inherent clash of interests: Property rights versus architectural heritage. Advocates are passionate, and in the case of Tupelo, rightly lament the city’s long-standing indifference to the man-made demolition – on top of the natural destruction – of its past.
Unfortunately, the Historic Preservation Commission’s first public standoff on a single structure has come in a case in which the issues are simply not clear cut. Calvary Baptist Church bought the century-old Spain House in 2006 with no restrictions attached. Church leaders intended to use the area to expand their facilities and parking.
Since last year, when a split City Council gave protected historic landmark status to the house, the church and the commission have been at odds over the property. The church, understandably, does not want to spend the $600,000 it would take to repair and renovate the house to a useable condition. It sits deteriorating, while presenting real liability issues for the church, which has tried unsuccessfully to give it away to the city or anyone who will move it.
The house is obviously a strong symbol to the commission, which has drawn its line in the sand. But if the commission persists in denying the church the right to demolish the house while offering it no viable alternative, it could be a case of winning the battle but ultimately losing the war. Historic preservation efforts are less likely to take hold with broad public support if it appears the commission acts in too heavy-handed a fashion. Right now, the situation is only lose-lose, because nothing will happen if the house is saved other than its continued deterioration.
Sometimes those with power better serve their cause by using it judiciously, if at all. That’s not getting everything you want, and it’s messy. But it just may be the best way to build consensus, over time, in your favor.

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