Natchez can do what Tupelo did

Published 12:05 am Sunday, January 17, 2010

Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton can see parallels with his city and Tupelo, a much larger and arguably much more successful city.

Only the parallels are approximately 50 years apart.

“First thing, Tupelo has got it going on, there’s no question about that,” the first-term mayor said late last week after a two-day fact-finding trip to Tupelo with more than a dozen community leaders.

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The trip was intended to give the area’s current leaders a chance to learn about how Tupelo’s economic and community development organizations are structured and, potentially, learn from their success.

“Their success started many years ago,” Middleton said.

“Back in the 1960s, when they started, Natchez was probably as good a place as any place else in Mississippi,” Middleton said.

That was a time when heavy industry in Adams County was flying high.

At the same time, across the state, Tupelo wasn’t particularly booming.

But their community leaders started working together on improving the area. At that time, Tupelo was, as one of their community leaders said, “the poorest county in the poorest state.”

At the time when Tupelo leaders figured out that the only way to go was up and the only way to get there was with each other’s help, Natchez was still riding high and resting on its laurels.

And there Natchez remained for years. All the while other parts of the state — especially Tupelo — were slowly working to improve.

“We probably let our guard down a little back then,” Middleton said. “We weren’t really looking for any additional industrial prospects and it kind of caught up with us.”

By the time International Paper, Johns Manville and Titan Tire closed in the early 2000s, it was too late to quickly recover from the loss of such huge industries.

For a few decades, our area’s business community collectively took the attitude that economic and community development was someone else’s job.

That’s obviously no longer a commonly held sentiment.

Energized, or perhaps frustrated and a little terrified, by the lack of movement on the part of the folks they thought were working development, the business community recently jumped into action.

The group raised more than $123,000 in commitments for each of the next three years to help fund a renewed economic development engine, one that will be mostly led by the business community.

That’s a good sign of a much more broad level of community involvement than Natchez has seen in decades — if not ever.

That momentum, combined with a few good ideas from the outside may turn the area’s apathy and frustration over a lack of progress into a driving unified force to truly get our community back on track.

For Middleton, that may have started with the Tupelo trip.

“It gave me some ideas on what we could do, similar,” he said. “The key to the whole trip was education.”

Middleton pointed to a tuition assistance program recently begun in the Tupelo area. The program offers tuition assistance to area high school graduates who do not qualify for state or federal aid.

Figuring out how to offer a similar program in our area would be a huge first step toward putting education first and putting it within reach of all our students.

“It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do up there,” Middleton said.

And it will be amazing to think what we could do here, too. Natchez has some great things going for it. The resilience and work ethic of its people may be the best.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or