HED:Sherman's mayor receives national leadership award
By John Cummins
SHERMAN - The town of Sherman, with a population of 650 and nestled at the intersection of Union, Pontotoc and Lee counties, calls itself "The Heart of the Tri-Counties."
Mayor Terry Wood calls himself a heart surgeon.
"We've done some radical surgery on the heart of this patient during the last four years," said Wood, 67, smiling. "But I'm glad to report the patient is doing well."
So well, in fact, that Sherman's mayor has been recognized as the best small-town leader in America, according to a program that awards achievement by officials in communities with 25,000 people or less.
Wood is the grand prize winner of the 1997 American Hometown Leadership Award, sponsored by the National Center for Small Communities and Wal-Mart.
Chosen the best small-town official from more than 500 nominations, the award cited Wood for bringing six new businesses to Sherman and creating more than 100 new jobs. He was also singled out for his work in repairing the town's water and sewer systems, building a new town hall, hiring a building inspector and establishing a community appearance ordinance. Wood was noted for pursuing grants to make the improvements, guiding Sherman's tax rates to an 11-year low.
Wood recently traveled to Washington to accept a plaque in his honor from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and pick up a $10,000 grant check for Sherman.
"Trent said it had to be the prettiest plaque in Sherman," Wood said, winking.
A gregarious man with salt and pepper hair, Wood was born and reared in Corinth. After the Korean War, Wood opened a photography studio in Tupelo, Terry Wood Photography, which he ran from 1954 to December 1993. He moved to Sherman in 1976, buying what he described as the oldest house in town.
As a photographer, Wood's artistic eye was attracted by the town.
"This is really just a beautiful town," he said between draws on the ever-present cigarette clutched between his fingers. "The big oak trees give it a real shady look, and it has lots of air and open space, too. And the people ...," he said gently, his voice lowering, "they're the best in the world."
But Wood said he didn't give his adopted hometown much thought until he retired. He credits his wife, Peg, a retired nursing instructor, for putting the political bug in him.
"One day Peg and I were talking about complete retirement, but she saw that I had more and more time on my hands," Wood said. "Finally she came out and told me that I was getting bored, and that started it."
With a nod to his longtime Rotarian service, Wood said he then started thinking he could do something for Sherman.
Beg, borrow and almost steal
Following his election as mayor in 1993, Wood said he set out to change Sherman's image.
He and the town council started scouring grant applications and other alternatives to raise money for the town, without raising the town's taxes.
The town eventually renovated its library with a state grant, while a federal grant enabled Wood to double the police force. More funds led to the town's first park, complete with T-ball field.
"We begged, borrowed ... I won't say stole, for that park," he said, grinning. "But we got it done."
Simultaneously, Wood and other Sherman officials started tinkering with Sherman's employment picture.
"We have what businesses want: location, location, location," Wood said. They knew, however, that it could be an expensive and potentially fruitless race to spend the town's limited resources in attracting new industries to town. Instead, Wood said he and the town council worked on helping existing businesses expand.
With the area's strong economy aiding their efforts, several of the town's industries decided to do just that. Wood ran out of fingers trying to count the successes.
"We rezoned property for Advanced Plastics so they could expand ... we worked with Meadowbrook Furniture, helping them with their drainage problems .. now we're working on an industrial road ... we just did a bunch of things," Wood said.
The efforts, in turn, were noticed by other businesses. Larry Williams is president of the Bank of Mississippi community bank in Sherman. He said Wood has "steered between six and eight new businesses to Sherman," all of which had noticed the success of existing industry in Sherman.
The new administration also tackled the problem of housing in Sherman, Wood said.
"Between 1981 and 1993 there were only $79,000 worth of building permits issued in the town, and only one permit involved residential construction. There were just no houses to be had," Woods said.
Aided by Tupelo's expansion northwest, Wood helped shepherd two new subdivisions to the town, and Sherman may soon annex another subdivision.
In addition, several apartments and individual homes were built, increasing residential construction to more than $2 million since 1993.
Several cuss fights
But with success came criticism, especially of what Wood considers one of his greatest achievements for the town - cleaning it up.
Soon after Wood was elected, he and the council passed a "beautification and community appearance ordinance," which, among other things, forced the cleanup of dilapidated buildings and property, and the removal of eyesores such as junk piles and junked cars within city limits.
And many of Sherman's longtime residents, some ticketed for violating the ordinance, came to resent Wood's efforts. The mayor, however, brusquely dismissed the criticism.
"It helped increase the property values, and makes Sherman look better," Wood said.
And other community members rallied behind Wood and the ordinance.
"Anytime you go into a small town and make improvements, someone's not going to like it. You're not going to please everybody," Williams said, adding the eyesore law has helped restore pride in the town.
Bettye Bates agrees. A 38-year resident of Sherman, she said the ordinance had been needed for a long time.
"I would drive by some of those places, and I wouldn't have ate supper there," Bates said.
But Bates related that she's had her own run-ins with the mayor as well.
"He's made me mad, now. We've had several cuss fights," said Bates, smiling broadly. "But he's done more in his administration than all the others, and I admire him."
Needed: People with foresight
What Wood considers Sherman's biggest problem is his next challenge - reviving a long-dormant downtown.
Once a railroad hub, Wood said when train lines pulled out of Sherman in the 1950s and 1960s, it started a long decline for the town. He described how the town used to have a hotel that stayed packed with business travelers making Sherman their base for forays into the different counties.
Another hit, Wood said, was the consolidation of schools by the various counties, which led to Sherman losing its own school.
"People never thought they'd move the school," Wood said, raising his hands for emphasis.
"That's a town's center of interest. The town rallies around it, goes to its games. It brings in young couples," Wood said.
Without a school of its own, young couples who might have stayed left Sherman, and contributed to the image of a dying town.
Wood said the best scenario would be having an elementary school re-established in town. But with the grant in hand, Wood said he hopes to revive interest in Sherman's downtown, and make the best of the situation.
"We have the buildings, the space. Now we only need people with foresight," Wood said. He said the town may consider giving ad valorem tax breaks to retail merchants who move downtown, and "work with them" on building permits.
He said the council may discuss it at its next meeting. The sooner the better, Wood said.
"There's a plaque where me and Peg drink coffee each morning, and it says 'Someday is Today,'" Wood said. "That's what it is - today."
Name: J. Terry Wood.
Experience: Mayor since 1993; professional photographer 1954-1993.
Education: Graduate of Corinth High School; attended Itawamba Community College and Jacksonville State University in Alabama.
Family: Wife, Peg; sons James and Richard.