Growth, simplicity and community

Even before the events of Sept. 11 raised the perceived risks of living in major metropolitan areas, signs of a potential renaissance in small-town and small-city America were evident.

The simple fact is that people are attracted to the sense of neighborliness and belonging, as well as the other special charms, found in smaller communities. The operative words here may be "simple" and "community."

Much has been written in recent years about people yearning to simplify their lives. Time is a commodity few people feel is in adequate supply. Technology, helpful as it has been in so many ways, has contributed to a faster-paced, more hectic, perpetual-motion lifestyle. The economic boom of the 90s didn't come without tradeoffs: Longer hours at work, less time for family and friends, higher levels of stress.

These pressures are exacerbated by the special stresses of big-city living. Lots of people want to slow down, to spend more time on the things in life that matter most.

Major metropolitan areas - and particularly suburban and exurban living in those areas - so often lack the element that can ease some of the special stresses of modern-day living: a sense of community, a feeling of connection to neighbors and beyond, and avenues for community involvement that can really make a difference. In smaller communities, you can feel much more a part of things, much less an anonymous cog in a huge machine.

These points are all made in a new book, "The 50 Best Small Southern Towns," which includes Oxford, West Point and Holly Springs in its compilation, as well as in previous publications of various sorts and considerable anecdotal evidence from people seeking out or returning to live in smaller communities.

Smaller communities aren't immune from the stresses of modern life, but the best ones offer an atmosphere that helps serve as an antidote to those stresses and that provides daily living on a more humane scale.

All this is good news for regions like Northeast Mississippi made up exclusively of small cities, towns and rural countrysides but who are reasonably near metropolitan areas and the amenities they offer. There is an economic future not only for the Tupelos, but for the Pontotocs and New Albanys and Amorys and Fultons of the world, and even for the smaller communities and rural lifestyle nearby.

Ironically, it is technology - the factor that has accelerated life's speed and increased its pressures - which gives this region its best long-term prospects for continued economic renewal. Location in a large urban center is no longer as important for many individuals and companies, given the long-distance business capabilities technology allows. Northeast Mississippi is in a position to convert its lifestyle advantages, and their increasing appeal to disconnected urbanites, to future economic advantage - if it can get the technology infrastructure in place.

That's a big "if." This region is behind the curve in telecommunications capabilities, and a consortium of groups is working on securing the funds and creating the plan to make Northeast Mississippi technologically competitive. Success in that endeavor is critical.

Assuming it occurs, new challenges will emerge, chief among them how to maintain the characteristics that attract people in the first place. This will require considerable thought, effort and planning.

Huge industrial complexes - i.e., the kind envisioned for a new site sought by a unique joint effort of Lee, Pontotoc and Union counties - can mean dramatic changes in the surrounding area. Planning to minimize potential negative impacts to quality of life is essential.

Encouraging industrial, commercial and residential growth while working to maintain the special atmosphere of neighborly communities isn't an easy balancing act. But simply duplicating the willy-nilly growth and suburban sprawl of large metropolitan areas isn't an acceptable option if we want to maintain the character and feel of our communities.

We have a lifestyle increasing numbers of people desire. Our challenge is to grow and change while simultaneously preserving the best of it. On its face, that might seem a difficult undertaking. But when has Northeast Mississippi ever shied away from a challenge?

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. E-mail him at lloyd.gray@djournal.com

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