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Checking out Lee County and Tupelo, in search of Elvis

By Staff
Feb. 11, 2001
We spent last weekend in Tupelo. The annual in-gathering or state convention of our church. My Mother would have asked, "Did you do any good?" And I would have responded, "I don't think we did any harm and we had a good time. By and by we'll know if we did any good."
The meetings were held at the BancorpSouth Center. This convention center/coliseum facility is located on a former mall site. It also serves as the home of the Tupelo T-Rex, a minor league ice hockey team. In fact, the ice playing surface was covered with thin sheets of particle board to provide seating for convention events. Metal chairs conduct cold.
Our group included several folks who had not been through the Tupelo community development indoctrination. I've been treated to the Community Development Corporation, or CDF version, of this tale a number of times. It is a great story. Spun with style and verve by a variety of people.
Area-wide mission
The CDF is the economic development organization which has guided the success of Tupelo and Lee County since 1948. Embedded in the purpose of the CDF is development of the area within a fifty mile radius of Tupelo. This area development mission is clearly reflected in programs and activities of the CDF.
Certainly there are potholes and U-turns and deep swamps of ego along Tupelo's trail to success. In fact, the boosterism some of their cheerleaders radiate can overwhelm. Yet in the quiet moments I have been able enjoy with community leaders from that region I find some very instructive bedrock themes.
The words "upbring of the community" seem out of date. However the concept of engaging in all "matters of civic interest" has found continuing application across the 50 plus years of CDF stewardship. The process of "upbring" includes community development as well as economic development.
The CDF mission includes initiation and promotion of "agriculture, industry, trade, recreation, education and other matters of civic interest" within a fifty mile radius of Tupelo. This a very broad development thrust.
Measure of success
While these folks are very intentional about job creation and wage enhancement, they seem to understand that "upbringing" the quality of life for all is the measure of success.
Commitment to this broad, clear mission over time has worked well. We took a windshield tour of Lee County. It's impressive. The BancorpSouth Center has a 10,000 seat capacity with breakout and banquet spaces. In a different location, the Tupelo Furniture Market is used for a variety of trade shows. This facility has over a million and a quarter square feet of show space.
Industrial parks? Four located across the length of Lee County. Over 3,000 acres occupied and over 1,000 acres available. Available means all services. And the CDF does the deals. Politicians stay home and await the credit.
Consider population growth. In 1960 Lee County was home to 40,589 people. The estimate for the 2000 census was 77,000. That's 1960 to 2000 growth of almost 90 percent.
To help gain perspective on that growth, take Lauderdale County's 1960 population of 67,119 and multiply by 89 percent. As the calculator on my grape iMac chugged up 126,800 plus, I took a walk.
Advantages
Of course, community development is not simply about population growth. But places that are growing tend to be "upbringing" quality of life and work more than places with declining or stable populations.
Before the CDF, Tupelo was America's first TVA City. The year was 1934. The lower utility rate advantage this brought has diminished over the last 60 plus years, but cheaper power helped jump start Lee County's transition toward a broader industrial base.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is more than an electric generation and distribution organization. From the onset, TVA worked at the local and national level to assist communities in mining the resources of our federal government. Openness to government assistance from any and all sources is one of the bedrock themes of Lee County's development.
And then there is the matter of leadership. Only one of the original incorporators of the CDF is still living. Cultivation of leadership has been an ongoing process across the last 60 years. While the CDF has an able and stable staff of professional developers, the volunteer leadership across the community remains engaged. These folks know how to get things done.
And in my experience one can not talk about leadership in Lee County without emphasizing the role of the local newspaper. The founding secretary of the CDF was the owner and publisher. He set the tone and pace for development in his community. His quiet, affirming style became a model for his community.
Leadership for what? The CDF has clear job creation goals. For example, "create 1,000 new manufacturing and 1,700 service jobs for a total of 2,700." These are public benchmarks with frequent progress reports. Measurable, specific progress. Note the specification of manufacturing and service jobs. Do we know any places that have swapped manufacturing jobs for service jobs?
Of course, we went by the Elvis Presley birthplace. No sightings of the King reported. But the visitor flow seemed steady, people coming and going. That evening one of our party broke out an Elvis CD. And I got to repeat the "how Meridian folk dissed Elvis" routine."
Up bring people and their quality of life. Keep the mission broad and clear. Put the region first. Get help from every source. Nurture leadership. Have clear, specific job growth goals. Use the magnets you have to draw visitors. Build new attractors. And work hard at paddling together.
And what might we do to "upbring" our community?
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at wscaggs@themeridianstar.com.

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