As the city of Tupelo steered into the first two decades of the 21st century, it was buoyed by fresh economic and civic successes while also facing down some new challenges.
In Tupelo, the 21st century dawned with the opening of a newly constructed City Hall. Financed by bond debt, the building was the first of an ambitious effort to develop the city’s former fairgrounds area into a hub for commerce, public business and housing. City Hall would go on to be joined by residential construction, a restaurant and a growing list of businesses.
Today, in fact, construction in Fairpark is seeing a new boom, with housing and office building under construction or soon planned.
The 2007 announcement that Toyota would locate an auto manufacturing plant in the nearby Union County community of Blue Springs brought an economic jolt to the region and seemed to pay the dividends of a cooperative, regional approach. Lee County, Pontotoc County and Union County together formed the PUL Alliance that eventually brought the auto giant to Northeast Mississippi.
By the waning years of the first decade of the new millennium, however, struggles were evident. Population decline, economic uncertainty, a lingering sense of civic fatigue – dire indicators hung heavy when Jack Reed Jr. was elected mayor in 2010.
“I was mayor during the recession,” Reed said, recalling grim times.
Reed governed from the conviction that restoring the city’s traditional spirit nonetheless requires a willingness to innovate and break with the status quo.
“I was particularly interested in turning around the sense of civic pride in Tupelo as a community,” Reed said. “It seemed like people had been sitting on our laurels. Sort of the same old, same old to some degree. Not just the government, the whole city. One of the things I was interested in was reminding people what a great community Tupelo at its best can be.”
To that end, housing policy and quality of life improvements emerged as major policy priorities across the last decade, both under the Reed administration and under his successor, Mayor Jason Shelton. Blighted homes and apartments have been torn down. Investment has boosted the city’s park facilities.
Shelton’s two terms in office have also seen their share of ups and downs.
In December 2013, a shootout left city police officer Gale Stauffer dead, and badly injured another.
Only months later, in April 2014, a destructive tornado cut its way through the city. It was the most destructive twister to ever hit Tupelo since the infamous and fearsomely lethal 1936 tornado. A brand new mayor leading an administration filled with new faces in key places faced a daunting task. Homes. including economically key residential areas, were damaged and destroyed. Businesses were leveled. The recovery efforts would drag on for years. To this day, some lots still stand empty where buildings once stood prior to 2014.
The recovery efforts fueled an increase in civic vitality, and propelled a team of community leaders to win Tupelo a fifth All-American City award in 2015. The win boosted morale as Tupelo became only the seventh city nationwide to win the highest prize awarded by the National League of Cities for a fifth time.
But, Shelton has largely presided over an economic boom that has included month after month of record breaking sales tax revenue. The budget writing process every summer seemingly always brought with it a cash surplus. Investment in downtown continued.
Veteran Tupelo City Council members agreed last year that though challenges remain, the city is ending the decade in a better place than when it began.
Years of record-setting sales tax revenue. New residential construction across the city. Increasing investment in the downtown area, including a planned office park that will ultimately see the construction of two high-rise towers. Revitalization efforts on West Jackson Street have produced especially dramatic results. Gone are blocks of deteriorating rental homes, now replaced by new residential construction.
These are the signs that inspire confidence.
“We got a plan,” Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings said. “We’re still working on that plan. We’ve accomplished a lot. I feel comfortable with where we’re at.”
These words were echoed by Ward 6 City Councilman Mike Bryan.
“I’ve seen a lot,” Bryan said. “I wish I could have taken a picture of what it was before and then after.”
And so, amid the good and the bad, the story of a community does not write itself, and there’s no guarantee that past is prologue.
Former mayor Reed is emphatic that Tupelo’s Mississippi success story will only be maintained by careful cultivation of new leadership and new citizens invested in the health of local civic life.
“We’ve got to keep talking about this story, this inclusivity. You can’t assume that people know,” Reed said. “It’s a story you want to be a part of once you understand it.”
Doyce Deas is a lifelong resident of Tupelo, served for a time on the City Council and has long been an advocate for arts, education and historical preservation.
She worries that the preservation of the Tupelo ideal, of the “Tupelo Way,” could prove more difficult than salvaging any historic home.
“I think it’s a struggle to pass that on,” Deas said. “I worry about that.”
Concerns about race and poverty also sat heavy with Reed throughout his own term, and they still do. He believes Tupelo has much of which to be proud over the last decade, but cannot once again risk complacency.
“We’ve got a lot going for us,” Reed said. “We just need to make sure everyone pulls together, does their part.”
This article includes material from a January 2020 article and an August 2020 article by Caleb Bedillion.