The challenges Tupelo faces at this point in its history aren’t unique. In fact, they’re the norm for a city once it reaches a certain size and stage in its growth and development.
Core neighborhoods age. Middle-class homeowners move out and are replaced by lower-income renters. Blighted properties multiply. Crime increases.
Young middle-class families looking for housing find nothing suitable in their price range in the city, so they find a newer, nicer and less expensive alternative outside the city limits. A steady middle-class erosion begins, affecting not only neighborhoods but the school system, and the trends toward a city of rich and poor and not much in between accelerate.
The outcome is virtually inevitable unless something is done – aggressively and over the long haul – to reverse those trends.
Most cities don’t do anything until it’s too late, if then. That’s why most cities over time end up with a declining inner core, white flight, a resegregated public school system and a loss of their vital middle-class tax base.
The principal question facing Tupelo at the moment – the question that supersedes all others – is will it be different. Will Tupelo’s self-image as an exception to so many rules about small southern cities play out in this case, or will it go the route of so many others.
Both candidates have acknowledged that this is the central issue in Tuesday’s mayoral election. It has also been the prevailing theme of Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s four years in office, especially since the 2010 Census hit Tupelo squarely in the face with the hard reality of stagnant population growth and median income.
There have been warnings. Reed noted in an address to the Kiwanis Club on Friday that a study commissioned in 1996 recommended the kind of neighborhood redevelopment projects the city is only now getting under way and warned of the consequences of not acting.
Tupelo, it’s fair to say, dropped the ball on this. There were isolated efforts here and there to reverse blight and decline in older neighborhoods, but nothing coordinated, nothing bold, nothing sustained over the long haul. Time and inaction only worsened the trends.
Some coasting on laurels was happening here, no doubt, and perhaps an overconfidence that Tupelo’s history of exceptionalism would somehow make the city immune from what happens to everybody else. But the challenges were also layered with complexities, and sensitive issues like race and poverty, and it was hard to know how to proceed, or at least to generate the will and momentum to act.
We’re now much more aware of the challenges – and publicly airing them, thankfully – but still hesitant to go whole-hog. One thing that did come out of the 1990s warning flags was the Neighborhood Development Corp., a private sector group put together to serve as a vehicle for revitalization. But a City Council majority can’t yet bring itself to accept the idea that this group could be a big asset if given full authority to make revinvestment happen in neighborhoods like the West Jackson Street area.
The next few years will determine if Tupelo remains an exceptional community or if it will become just another reasonably functional city with the same set of problems as most others or, later, something worse. Whether the city has the will to do the things that need to be done will tell the tale.
Tupelo still has the positive assets and the financial resources to turn things around. It’s got a whole lot still going for it, but it doesn’t have forever. It’s not too late, but there’s no more time to lose.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal