Janet Gaston hopes to draw in more residents, tourists to Ward 6
TUPELO • Janet Gaston is nearing the end of her first year representing Ward 6 on the Tupelo City Council, and she feels as if she’s still learning something new every day.
“The biggest surprise to me was how many things the city touches,” she said. “Whether it is Public Works, the Development Services Department, or Tupelo Water and Light, they keep the city going 24/7. I have a better appreciation for what it takes to run the city. It gives me a stronger desire to do what I can to make the city even better.”
With her first year nearly behind her, Gaston said she's excited to move forward on a litany of issues. She said one could trace her priorities back to drawing more people into the city to live or visit. Her main focuses included infrastructure, beautification and recreation.
Beautification efforts important to city health
Gaston believes beautification is key to building pride in a community and a reputation for tourism.
“We have to focus on sprucing up our city property landscaping,” she said. “It goes a long way, and it is not a major capital investment.”
Beautification comes in the form of litter pickup, landscaping and general maintenance of the main entrances and thoroughfares of the city and its neighborhoods.
Mayor Todd Jordan said beautification was a priority for his administration, noting that a handful of roads in the city had litter issues, including Locust Lane in Ward 6.
“There are about six roads in Tupelo that you could pick up the litter on today, and tomorrow they would be covered in litter again,” he said.
Jordan said events like the recent 10 for Tupelo, hosted by Keep Tupelo Beautiful, help teach children that littering is unacceptable. It's the best way to stop littering before it starts, he said.
Gaston said litter pickup events are a good stop-gap, but the city needs long-term solutions to its litter problems.
“Everyone in the administration agrees this is an issue for each ward,” she said.
Beautification means more to Gaston than just cleaning littered streets; well-kept landscaping on curbs could do a lot for the approachability of a city, she said, and hopes to see more beautification efforts at city entrances and major thoroughfares.
Jordan said he plans to create a multi-departmental crew made up of Public Works and Parks and Recreation employees dedicated to maintaining roads, right of way and the park systems.
Keep Tupelo Beautiful Director Kathryn Rhea agreed curb appeal is important to a thriving city, adding that the goal is to instill pride in a community and drive up property values.
“When you are competing with different cities for residents and visitors, it is best to put your best foot forward,” Rhea said.
Gaston focuses on Ballard Park Upgrades
Recreation is also a priority for Gaston.
The councilwoman has a laundry list of upgrades she’d like to see made to Ballard Park, which sits squarely in her ward. Those upgrades include better parking, more accessible playground equipment, amphitheater seating and a new, larger pavilion.
Gaston believes the updates would attract more families and activities to the park.
“We just need to take that asset and upgrade it,” she said. “It has already been proven to be utilized by people all over the city and towns around us.”
Jordan said upgrading the city’s parks, including Ballard, are among the city’s long-term plans.
A project that’s less likely for the immediate future, but one Gaston wholeheartedly supports, is the construction of a new community center. City officials traveled to Oklahoma City for a conference last month, and the city’s large community center inspired the councilwoman.
“I think we need to continue to look at a community center,” she said. “Tupelo needs a facility more like the one in Oxford that services retired people all the way down to youth programs.”
Though important to her, she acknowledged the project — which she estimates would cost the city upward of $10 million — is years away, if it happens at all.
While the mayor agreed with Gaston that it would be good for the city to have a community center, he had his reservations.
“It is something to talk about. I think it would be a great addition, but money is an issue,” Jordan said, adding staffing would also be an issue.
Roads, and travel on them, a concern
Like her colleagues, Gaston is concerned about infrastructure in her district, specifically road maintenance and drainage.
The administration also sees Ward 6 as a priority. The city’s road maintenance plan includes 14 projects in Gaston’s ward, totaling an estimated $731,302 in repairs. Her ward falls just behind Ward 1 in both the number of projects and overall amount being spent on roadwork.
The widening of Airpark Road from Main to Jackson is one of the biggest road projects within Gaston’s ward.
Gaston isn’t just concerned about the condition of her ward’s roads, but the speed at which drivers are traveling along them. Gaston said people tended to speed frequently through back roads and neighborhoods in Ward 6, creating a dangerous environment for residents.
Her solution: increased patrolling. She said she’s spoken with Police Chief John Quaka about that very issue, and the city’s top cop told her speeding is a frequent topic at neighborhood associations meetings.
“It is not related to one neighborhood or one area,” Quaka said. “It concerns all neighborhoods, and rightly so. Speeding is a threat to the well-being of our children. It is very rare we catch them in the act because people tend to slow down when they see a marked car. It is tough to catch them, but we try our best to quash speeding.”
Increased code enforcement moving forward
Gaston said code enforcement citywide is a major priority and one that the administration is already well on its way to correcting.
The administration hired David Shelton as the Chief Code Inspector and was also hiring a new fleet of code inspectors to revamp the division. Once the city finished the hiring process, Development Services Director Tanner Newman said there would be an inspector for each ward in an effort to move from a reactive form of enforcement to a proactive enforcement model, including regular inspector patrols through their respective ward.
Gaston thinks that’s a solid step in the right direction.
“I get a lot of complaints from people,” Gaston said. “They see residents that don’t keep their property cleaned up. Now that we have the chief code inspector, I think we will see more citations given out. That is going to be an improvement.”