CATEGORY: Tupelo Stories

AUTHOR: MOULDE

HED:Group wants city to reward development in midtown district

By Philip Moulden

Daily Journal

A midtown Tupelo neighborhood group is seeking an incentives package from public and private entities to aid reinvestment in the area.

The Historic Downtown Tupelo Neighborhood Association is seeking a city agreement to waive some taxes and fees on improvements, to upgrade infrastructure, to ease removal of construction debris, and to strengthen police protection in the district.

At some point, the city is also expected to consider zoning modifications to permit greater density in the neighborhood's housing.

Tupelo's City Council will take a look at the city's proposed role in the plan at a work session Tuesday, and may act Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, at least one lending institution, the Bank of Mississippi, has instituted a program to help residents in the neighborhood obtain low-interest loans.

Council outlook

The historic neighborhood district covers a large section of mostly residential property west of Tupelo's downtown commercial district. Its stair-step lines run as far west as Gloster Street and as far east as Green Street, with the north end reaching Clift Road and the southern end Chestnut Street.

Key provisions of the six-point incentives package would eliminate city fees such as building permit costs; provide such amenities as sidewalks, curbs, gutters, street repaving, lighting and landscaping; increase police presence; and grant owners a seven-year property tax exemption on the value of an improvement.

One of the major goals is to interest landlords of deteriorating rental properties to upgrade by showing that neighborhood vitality can boost the values of their units. Likewise, it should interest existing homeowners in remodeling and lure new homeowners to the area.

Larry Holliday, with the Bank of Mississippi, said the bank has set up a Community Pride Loan Program that would help first-time home buyers get homes and homeowners improve their properties.

Loans would be at below-market rates and the bank would look closely at people with marginal credit to see if a deal could be made, Holliday said. The bank plans to conduct a seminar within the next month to acquaint people with the program, he said.

"We're going to do everything in our power to make the loan," he said. "Hopefully, we're going to be able to help some people."

Council outlook

City council members seem favorable to the plan, although it appears some want to do some fine tuning.

Council President James Williams said he likes the idea, but suggested some guidelines other than location might guide the incentives.

For instance, he thinks the plan might be expanded to cover other segments of the city.

"I think we can do it in other areas ... in areas that really have a need," Williams said. "This is real good for us. Certainly we're going to look at every option. We don't want to leave anybody out."

Also, affluence as well as dilapidation marks the district and some officials doubt that well-to-do residents should get tax breaks on improvements made to their upscale homes.

"That's got to be looked at and we've got to establish a policy," Williams said. "The intent is to get substandard housing upgraded."

The plan is not without detractors.

Although the southern section of the historic district lies in his ward, Ward 5 City Councilman Tommy Doty believes the plan would be unfair to other Tupelo citizens. Doty said he has gotten complaints.

"This is not going to help everyone," he said. "I don't think it's right at all. Nothing about it is fair in my opinion.

"I'm for fixing the neighborhood, but not at the city's expense. The private sector should do it."

But Ward 4 Councilman Boyce Grayson Sr., in whose ward the bulk of the district lies, said he has heard no complaints about singling out the neighborhood for special incentives.

"I think it's excellent," Grayson said of the proposal. "It will go a long way toward improving the ward."

To build or not

Developers also see the incentives package as positive, although Tupelo developer Tommy Morgan believes it will excite individual homeowners more than home builders.

While tax and fee savings may help convince developers to invest in the area in hopes of seeing a profit, benefits for homeowners would be more assured.

"They'd see some dollars saved and have confidence in the overall outlook for their neighborhood," he said.

"I think it's very positive for turning around that area," Morgan said, noting that at some point all neighborhoods need revitalization or they die. "I think it is definitely a way to help the city."

Dan Camp, a Starkville developer responsible for transforming that city's dilapidated Cotton Mill district to a coveted high-density living area, agrees the incentives package can provide a spark toward reversing neighborhood disinvestment.

While Camp noted he got no help from the city of Starkville in his Cotton Mill project, he said incentives show homeowners and builders that a city is behind them.

Called in by association leaders to help stir enthusiasm for revitalization, Camp has already gotten personally involved.

A Tupelo native, he plans to renovate a large Madison Street duplex, turning it into a four-plex. The move required city approval for non-conforming use under existing zoning codes.

Among the key elements Camp sees in the package are infrastructure improvements and increased police protection. He believes in high-density housing that encourages people to walk their neighborhood. That requires sidewalks and security.

High population densities also encourage development of light neighborhood commercial entities such as restaurants, shops and grocery stores - a symbiotic kinship that existed in neighborhoods decades ago, he noted.

And success in one neighborhood builds a desire to repeat it in others, Camp said.

"You would hope the other areas would want to approach them (the council) to get the same things," he said.

Looking at details

Just how specific the council would want to be in its promises to the neighborhood is unclear.

Should it adopt a project plan laying out a timetable for sidewalk and street improvements? Would the city need to hire more police officers to assure that the area gets increased patrols?

Those are some of the questions raised about the plan, although most officials believe little additional outlay would be needed.

City Planning Director Stacey Mathis said needed sidewalk and street improvements could be provided out of existing Public Service Department budgets as private development progresses.

"We really didn't intend to set up a special budget for it ... but just put that in as a priority," Mathis said.

Neighborhood association members have suggested establishing a police substation and foot patrols in the area as well as increasing drug intervention efforts using existing officers.

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