The fundamental premise that drove Tupelo’s rise in the post-World War II era from an economically depressed small town to a nationally recognized jobs-creating model was simple: Community development precedes economic development.
Most communities had it reversed. They believed you went out and got business and industry and that made the community better. When they couldn’t attract high-quality jobs, they wondered why.
Tupelo’s leaders realized that building the community from the inside – creating good schools, strong neighborhoods, and the organizational infrastructure to connect people and make things happen – had to occur before significant and sustainable economic development could take place. So they set about doing that, and the results spoke for themselves.
Of course, when the economic development took place, it strengthened the local economy and tax revenues which allowed the community building to continue at an accelerated pace.
There’s a lesson in that in today’s discussion about neighborhood redevelopment in Tupelo. Community development is never finished; it is always a work in progress. Communities go through cycles, and they must be regularly reinvented and reinvigorated for the economic development to continue.
Tupelo is at a point in its life cycle where some older neighborhoods are in decline and the contagion of blight has spread. After nearly two decades of hand-wringing, targeted action is finally underway in the West Jackson Street area to reverse the decline and create demand for new moderate-priced homes for middle-class families.
Even before this project is fully under way, Mayor Jason Shelton has said it isn’t the way to go in the future and has discussed shifting the Development Services Department’s role to more of a business-seeker than a partner in neighborhood redevelopment.
The mayor and council need to consider that without the community development of neighborhood revitalization, the economic development isn’t as likely. Without a sustained strategy of intervention, what will happen in Tupelo will be what has happened in virtually every similarly situated community: neighborhood decline will continue, the middle-class will leave the city in even larger numbers, property values and therefore city revenues will decrease, city services will be reduced and the cycle will self-perpetuate.
Elements that have made Tupelo successful in the past certainly must be reconsidered and updated for contemporary circumstances. But while the details of policy and approach must be adapted, the basic principles of what made Tupelo unique through the years remain as relevant as ever.
The only way for economic development to continue is to continually build and rebuild the community. At this time in Tupelo’s history, that means a concerted effort to rebuild neighborhoods is essential.