EDITOR’S NOTE: Amid statewide elections this year that will impact the direction of Mississippi for years to come, the Daily Journal begins a series exploring some of the most serious issues facing the state’s future. Upcoming articles will delve into topics related to healthcare and education.

{strong}TUPELO • He rides a bicycle to work every day, even in the rain.

“I started a long time ago,” said Jesse Watkins, a Tupelo transplant. “I had a goal to be a one car family and make it work.”

Watkins, 34, commutes from the city’s Historic Downtown neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Mary Ann, and two sons, to Link Centre. He rents space there and works remotely for the technology company WordPress.com. Strolling on a treadmill outfitted as a standing desk, Watkins provides product assistance and troubleshooting.

The product of a missionary household, Watkins has lived everywhere from South America to the Midwest. After years based in Knoxville, Tennessee, where they met, Jesse and Mary Ann Watkins relocated back to Mississippi in late 2017 to be near Mary Ann’s family. She spent much of her own childhood on a small farm near New Houlka, in Chickasaw County, and her parents now live in Tupelo.

With its leafy streets, older bungalows and cottages, ample sidewalks and proximity to downtown, Jessie Watkins is happy that his neighborhood offers much of the urban ambiance he valued in Knoxville.

But he still misses his old city, his network of friends there and especially the well-developed opportunities for hiking. In Mississippi, he has explored the offerings of the Natchez Trace and nearby state parks, but wishes for greater accessibility to the kind of outdoor recreation he enjoys.

Indeed, Watkins – who listens carefully to questions and pauses before answering – is frank that he remains ambivalent about Mississippi when he considers the far flung future.

“If I think longterm, I have trouble seeing myself here,” Watkins said. “But I’m looking for that.”

Economically and demographically, Mississippi needs Watkins, and more like him. In his early 30s, Watkins has decades left in his working life at a time when U.S. Census estimates show the state losing population over recent years.

Indeed, against the backdrop of census numbers, fears have been pronounced among some government figures, educators and journalists over “brain drain” – the exodus of college graduates and younger workers out of the state.

The issue has become something of a political football with differing ideological interpretations. Proponents of tax reform argue that states without a personal income tax are seeing a population boom. Southern progressives argue that Mississippi’s prevailing conservatism and its attachment to the symbols of the Confederacy alienate younger residents.

For his part, Gov. Phil Bryant has been eager to minimize population concerns and emphasizes a rosy verdict of the state’s economic health based on robust unemployment figures and ongoing efforts to lure the once Rust Belt-based automobile industry down south.

But even if there’s disagreement about how steeply the state is shedding millennials, traction does exist for the idea that efforts of some kind must be made to retain younger Mississippians.

“It’s not nearly as big of a statistical issue as some would have you believe,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in a recent interview with the Daily Journal. “But that doesn’t matter. If we lose even one of our best and our brightest, that’s one too many, so we’ve got to continue to have economic policies in place that lead to job creation so that we can keep 100 percent of our best and our brightest.”

Reeves, a Republican running for governor, joins a slate of gubernatorial candidates who all offer various ideas to make the state more enticing for younger workers and college graduates.

These ideas center around new economic opportunities, tax incentives and solutions for longstanding problems that plague healthcare, education and infrastructure in the state.

Rural places and small cities have been especially hard hit by these longstanding problems and are often the epicenter of population decline.

Northeast Mississippi’s Aberdeen is one such place.

A native of Aberdeen, Jake Doty owns Fountain Grill, a hamburger restaurant that’s been downtown since the 1950s. At only 24, Doty has already become an active entrepreneur and stays busy farming corn and soybeans on the side.

With 12 part-time and full-time employees, Doty is a small but much needed economic engine in his local community.

aberdeen facts

The father of an 18-month old, he believes policy makers would do well to remember that younger workers are often new parents or prospective parents. When making a choice about where to settle, schools are key.

He thinks strong public schools are essential to restore vitality in rural areas with dwindling populations.

“I really believe it all stems off education,” Doty said.

Aberdeen has seen struggles in this regard, with a one-time state takeover of the city’s public school system. Doty himself went to private school in nearby West Point.

There are a host of adjacent difficulties, especially for a small-business owner. The population in Aberdeen has been declining for years. In the evening, Doty’s Fountain Grill is one of the few restaurants open for business. Many folk go other places if they want to shop or eat. Financing is hard to come by for new business ventures.

But Doty never imagined he would leave Mississippi for elsewhere. And he doesn’t plan to ever do so. He thinks about raising his own daughter here, where he’s self-employed and doesn’t have anyone to tell him he can’t take off work for ballgames or music recitals.

“This is home,” Doty said. “This has always been home.”

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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