LLOYD GRAY: Investing in Tupelo’s future

Lloyd Gray MugNew leadership in Tupelo City Hall is confronting the same problems previous leaders saw coming and, in recent years, attempted to address.

The critical challenge boils down to a simple proposition: How does Tupelo remain an attractive place to live, work and raise a family with the onset of pressing issues every growing city eventually must face?

The answers, of course, aren’t nearly as simple as the question.

Whether it’s the decline of once-stable older neighborhoods, the shortage of attractive middle-income housing, demographic changes that put stress on the public school system, or any of an assortment of other connected issues, Tupelo is not unique in the urban challenges it faces. But its long-touted uniqueness as a progressive city with the capacity to solve problems is undergoing a major test. Few cities, once they get into the cycle that has begun in Tupelo, have been able to reverse the trends and recapture their status as the place of choice to live in their area.

Think Jackson, Meridian, or on a much bigger scale, Memphis. All faced a steady migration outward of middle-income people to the surrounding area and a decline of the inner city. All waited too late to turn that migration around.

Tupelo has a distinct advantage that these cities didn’t, for the most part: A relatively recent willingness to discuss the issues openly and a window – albeit limited – of opportunity. There is still time, though not enough for procrastination.

And there are good signs. The most important is the turnaround in the Tupelo Public School District’s academic performance. Last year showed improvement. This year apparently will see an ever bigger jump, with several schools likely to stand out in the state’s top tier.

This is where it all begins. Without a successful school system with broad-based public support, Tupelo – or any city – will always underachieve. Absolutely nothing is as important to Tupelo’s future as the sustained return of its school system to high academic status and the community confidence that brings.

Good schools have so much to do with how people feel about living in a community and what kind of investment they’re willing to make. But there are other critical factors, and that’s where the new city government comes in.

The mayor and council are in the process of formulating a budget. They all speak of the necessity of responsible stewardship of the taxpayers’ dollars, of being frugal and of controlling expenses – worthy goals, of course.

But what mustn’t be lost in the desire to be frugal are two vital needs: 1) to provide city services and amenities at a level that keeps current residents satisfied and potential residents confident in moving in, and 2) to reinvest in the city in ways that enhance the quality of life by helping make neighborhoods attractive, safe and vibrant.

Sometimes this may mean spending a little money, even some of that $18 million the city has in the bank drawing a pittance of interest. It’s well above what cities need to have in reserve, and it’s doing less good where it is than it could do if some of it were committed to the projects needed to revive the parts of the city that need reviving.

A budget is a document of priorities. Tupelo’s budget needs to be fiscally responsible in charting a sustainable financial course.

But part of what has made Tupelo the success story it has been is a willingness to invest in the future by both public and private sectors and, at times, by the two together.

Now is such a time in Tupelo, if there ever was one. A budget that reflects prudent investment would be a down payment on the city’s long-term viability.

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