A Road Map for Rural Development

How a Mississippi town attracts top firms, supports quality schools - and a symphony

ON the surface, it may seem that Tupelo, Miss., has little to boast about.

A flat expanse among the lanky pines and rolling hills in the northeast corner of the Magnolia State, Tupelo has no natural beauty, no waterways, is not part of a major metropolitan area, and only recently got a four-lane highway.

Yet, Tupelo is the envy of both large and small towns across the United States, and communities from Montana to Kentucky are seeking to emulate it. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal/state agency, is launching a new community development initiative, trying to sow the "seeds" of civic activism and local leadership that have made Tupelo a model.

That's because this city of 34,000 and its surrounding counties have achieved what many deemed the improbable. As rural economies across the country struggle to remain viable, Tupelo is thriving. Forty-four Fortune 500 and international companies (including Sara Lee Corp., Cooper Tire and Rubber, and Borden) have set up operations here, and for the last decade, the area has added more than 1,000 new jobs and 1 million square feet of manufacturing space each year. Per capita income is the second highest in Mississippi, and the public schools are considered among the best in the state. Tupelo even supports its own symphony orchestra.

Tupelo's accomplishments are even more remarkable when compared with the city's profile 50 years ago. During the 1930s and '40s it was one of the poorest communities in the country's poorest state. The literacy level was lower than the state's average, and most residents toiled on small dairy and cotton farms. For years, Tupelo's only claim to fame was the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

"There wasn't much going for it," says Vaughn Grisham, a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and author of two books on Tupelo.

One man sparkplug

Tupelo's transformation began with the efforts of one man, newspaper publisher George McLean. Mr. McLean, president of Tupelo's Chamber of Commerce, decided in the 1920s that the organization wasn't serving the community and abolished it. More than a decade later, he helped set up a community development agency whose goals were to attract industry and persuade local businesses to invest in the town. McLean himself mortgaged his paper to fund community projects, such as the construction of manufacturing space for new companies.

The recipe for success in Tupelo has been community-based economic development, in which both businesses and the community unite to improve conditions, says Harry Martin, president of the Community Development Foundation. Although this process has taken years, Tupelo has reaped the benefits.

In education, for example, citizens decided it was a priority to have better schools. Businesses rallied behind the effort and have since contributed substantial amounts of money to significantly improve local schools. In the 1970s, the CDF helped start a program to train the local work force in technology skills. The move has paid off in attracting Fortune 500 and other companies, such as Norbord Industries Inc., a Canadian wood-products maker. Now, the organization is helping to build a $10 million technology center for that purpose.

One reason development has worked well here is that the city decided not to concentrate new businesses in the center of town, Mr. Martin says. "We strategically placed our industrial parks out in the countryside," he says. "We're placing the jobs among the people instead of transporting the people to the jobs." This strategy helps link the entire region and ensures that rural areas remain viable.

The Tupelo miracle, as some here call it, has become a model of rural development that can be applied elsewhere, Mr. Grisham says. Other communities "are quite capable of doing all the things Tupelo is doing as long as they understand it's going to take them 25 to 50 years," Grisham says.

Problems persist

Still, while Tupelo has come a long way, the city is not without its problems. Per capita income is still below the national average. Schools, while considered among the best in the state, are "about 50 percent of where they should be in a national or global sense," says Billy Crews, publisher of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. And aesthetically, parts of the commercial area of town are unattractive, with tacky signs and strip-mall-like development.

But race relations here are better than many parts of Mississippi, some blacks say. Kenneth Mayfield, a former civil rights attorney who owns four retail furniture stores in the area, attributes racial harmony to the desire of business leaders and the community to work together to resolve problems and differences.

In the 1960s, for example, Lee County, where Tupelo is located, was the first county in the state to integrate its schools and did so without a federal court order. Mr. Mayfield, however, believes blacks are not prospering in white-collar jobs as they should be and several years ago helped start a black business association to address that issue. But, he says: "A lot of water has gone under the bridge. We've been through boycotts and protests, but now we have a city I'm fairly pleased with."

The challenge for Tupelo now is for residents not to be smug about its accomplishments, many here say. "Everything that we've done can be pulled out quickly from under us if we rest on our laurels," Mr. Crews says.

"If Tupelo ever loses that community involvement, it will gradually deteriorate," Grisham adds.

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