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Steve Mullen: The Incredible Shrinking Columbus

 

Steve Mullen

 

The Golden Triangle has a new big brother. Starkville is now more populous than Columbus, according to Census figures released last week. 

 

The 2008 population estimate puts Starkville''s population at 24,187. Columbus stands at 23,798. 

 

This is one of those things that wasn''t supposed to happen. Despite the warnings, it forever remained on the distant horizon. Just like global warming. (By the way, does it feel warmer in here, or is it just me?) 

 

The trend has been there for years. Columbus has been shrinking steadily, losing 8 percent of its residents since 2000. Starkville has been steadily gaining over the same time, increasing by nearly 10 percent in the past eight years. 

 

Lowndes County, as a whole, is still far more populous than Oktibbeha (59,284 residents vs. 43,944). 

 

Some may make the argument that people are leaving Columbus to live in the county, so it must balance out, right? The truth is more complex. Lowndes County -- the unincorporated part, not counting Columbus -- has remained stagnant over the past eight years. Lowndes'' other municipalities (Caledonia, Crawford, Artesia) have all lost residents in the past eight years, however slightly. 

 

It''s no secret what is happening, at least in part.  

 

Leaders in Columbus and Lowndes are hard at work bringing in industry, and they''ve done well. Steel mills, helicopter manufacturers and others have chosen to locate here, around our great industrial assets -- the Tenn-Tom Waterway and the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.  

 

But while Lowndes is hard at work building up its industry, many of the workers it attracts are choosing to live in Starkville. With those residents goes the retail. With the retail goes the tax revenues that cities use to make life more livable for their people. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

 

 

 

The magic-bullet misfire 

 

What can reverse this trend? Columbus needs to aggressively annex areas around the city, to bring in more residents, build its tax base and prove that it''s a growing concern, not a withering one. 

 

But we''re talking about a place that can''t get soccer fields built, much less complete a master plan for the community and act aggressively to implement it. 

 

Like the soccer fields, Columbus has been talking about annexation for years. 

 

At one point, under Mayor Jeffrey Rupp, a half-dozen or so areas of the city were identified for annexation. Those plans languished for years. (Rupp annexed himself to Starkville, increasing its population by one.) 

 

Then, what was seen as a panacea for the city appeared -- in the form of a shopping mall. In late 2007, mall developer Newton Oldacre McDonald announced plans to build an 800,000-square-foot shopping center called University Park in Lowndes County, where 45 and 82 intersect. The original timeline, ironically, had the mall opening this month. 

 

The city''s ambitious annexation plans were put on the shelf, and instead were narrowed down to a single area -- the land where the shopping mall would be. 

 

The plan would enable the city to grow west of the river, expand toward new industries, and close the gap with Starkville, at least geographically. 

 

Nearly two years and one recession later, there is no mall. Developers never say never, but I got pretty close to never on the phone yesterday. 

 

"If all the stars lined up it could happen, but the stars aren''t lined up," NOM spokesperson Phil Martin told me. "There are not a lot of retailers interested in being there that aren''t already there." 

 

Ouch. 

 

I pressed him. Would this thing ever happen?  

 

"There is no activity or interest at this point," he said. "It''s a long shot. A definite long shot. If you read that as it''s not gonna happen, I''d say that you were probably right." 

 

So we get no mall, and no magic bullet.  

 

Now, city leaders are again talking about annexing the same areas that were talked about back in 2004, and earlier. 

 

 

 

It''s decision time 

 

Still, there is hope. During the election campaign this year, leaders at least continued to acknowledge Columbus'' declining population, proving that it''s on their radar somewhere. (Just as past city leaders have done, for years.) 

 

"Annexation is going to be a priority," Mayor Robert Smith said in an interview with The Dispatch after the election.  

 

"The most reasonable place we could annex would be out in East Columbus from Highway 50 and Highway 12 to Sand Road and everything to the left of Lehmberg Road. Along South Lehmberg, we want to take in areas like Cypress Park all the way down to Yorkville Road. By taking all those areas in, it would expand our tax base and allow us to provide services more cheaply." 

 

Others preached annexation during the campaign. 

 

"We are strangling right now, and we must grow," then-Vice Mayor Jay Jordan, who did not grow the city during his time on the council, said before the election. He was defeated by Kabir Karriem.  

 

Bill Gavin, the new Ward 6 councilman, seems to get it. "The other day I was thinking about Paccar, Severstal and all the other large companies that have chosen to make their homes in Lowndes County," Gavin said at the same forum. "But if you look at the majority of the people who work there, most of them are choosing Starkville to live in.  

 

"Most of them say that Starkville has a better standard of life," Gavin added. "We have sat back and let Tupelo and Starkville steal our thunder. It''s time for us to get that back." 

 

OK, the campaigning is over, and the new council is in place. Our own personal global warming decision-time has arrived, if it hadn''t years ago. (Starkville has overtaken us, for goodness'' sake.) 

 

Either we turn things around, or condemn Columbus to continual, even irreversible, decline. 

 

 

 

U.S. Census Bureau population estimate: www.census.gov

 

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Bossman commented at 7/8/2009 1:02:00 PM:

The city could increase within its own borders now without annexing more property that they cannot afford to service. An increase in size does not mean an increase in population. The City should recruit and offer incentives to residential contractors and developers to come in and build housing and condos within the existing city limits. There is plenty of lots and acreage available. Most people that live in the county choose to do so and should not be forced to live in an annexed area because the city wants a bigger tax base.

 

Article Comment Sara commented at 7/8/2009 2:06:00 PM:

Haven't you figured out yet that there is a segment of Columbus who doesn't want this town to grow. They want it to stay like it was 30-40 years ago. Columbus is a drama queen, all it does is go from one drama to another. Who wants to live in that environment.

 

Article Comment Uuuuh commented at 7/8/2009 2:57:00 PM:

People come to places where they see stability and hope. Nothing here gives much of that...read about our supervisors in today's paper.

 

Article Comment gravelsandy commented at 7/8/2009 3:07:00 PM:

compelling article....gee, thanks

 

Article Comment a Nexus nation commented at 7/8/2009 3:17:00 PM:

Of course we are going to see annexation in the areas the mayor mentions. Look at the ward maps. Annexation = voters. He wants Ward 3 to become a predominantly black ward, and now the paper is all but inviting this, wittingly or unwittingly.

 

Article Comment Slate commented at 7/8/2009 6:47:00 PM:

Cities either annex or die, Starkville has expanded since Columbus and has plenty of undeveloped land. Inside the current Columbus boundaries, areas to develop are nonexistent. The original study six years ago showed a estimated population of 35,000 in areas just outside the current boarders. County home prices were increasing at record levels (before the slowdown) but if the center city doesn't grow, it'll begin to affect home prices throughout the area. Retail and restaurants need roof-tops to validate expanding into new markets, we have them but they're not being counted. That's why Tupelo has a city limits of over 50 sq miles (twice that of Columbus) and is looking to annex again.

 

Article Comment Johnny D commented at 7/8/2009 10:36:00 PM:

I agree with Sara and Uuuuh (previosu postings).
There is a segment od Columbus who does not want Columbus to change. They are small-minded and make me sick. They are stuck in a time warp along with the old hoop skirts, mint julips, and grits metality.
Plus, we have the idiots on board at the city level who'd rather fight and bicker (usualyy a racial thing) than to see Columbus do what it COULD HAVE DONE.
Columnbus, for the most part, is washed up and deserves what it gets. It has had numerous chanes to excel and progress but it has not happened. It probably won't. Small minds get small returns.
It makes me sick to talk about. Such a damned waste.
Oh, one more thing.....have you noticed that the religous hypocrits here, and they are numerous, are more concerned with
being seen at church than helping out fellow citizens who need a a hand. I have friends here who are destitute, talented, and willing to give the city a boost. BUT they are considered outsiders and therfore are treated like second-class citizens. Tupelo and Starkville would have taken them in warmly and put them to work. Not here. We'd rather judge them and offer lip service. Like I said, Columbus gets what it deserves. The worst is not over. I see Columbus another Clarksdale within three years. Wait and see.

 

Article Comment Thom Geiger commented at 7/9/2009 4:40:00 PM:

I have two questions for Mr. Mullen, Mr. Imes, Mayor Robert Smith and the current/new) city council...
1. Was it not (then) councilman and mayoral candidate Robert Smith who said, during the special mayoral election campaign, to replace leaving mayor Jeffrey Rupp, that he was against the idea of a 'residential' annexation, but favored 'industrial' (or, as he sometimes put it, 'land') annexation? I believe there are video files on the internet that bear this out.
2. How can Columbus be shrinking? The city has already had one annexation with 13 sq. miles added to the city limits, including the one place annexation proponents refuse to discuss (the island). Still, in the ten years leading up to the first city election following that annexation, the city had lost 3 thousand people. In the years since that annexation, we are no bigger now than we were then. So the second question is, since we lost those original 3 thousand people, plus the ones we brought in on the last annexation, did we bulldoze those homes, or are the bulk of those homes still standing somewhere, even with the residents left in the city moving in and out of some of them? I belive this is a hole in the housing shortage claim.

Not being honest about the facts in an argument, or refusing to acknowledge or discuss the facts, doesn't help convince anyone that one side has a valid point. In my personal opinion, it only hurts in a debate or a discussion.

Did Robert Smith say what the files show he said, and what has happened to the homes of the families who have left the city since 1990?

So now we are going after increased tax base, but are the people to be annexed east of the city not already in the separate school district and paying SSD taxes? If so, then we are not talking about something for the children and the schools, but it's about city property taxes?

In the campaign I asked questions about many things that will probably never be answered by this mayor and council, from use of the MEGAPOP (the Obama administration recently announced a multi-billion dollar technology/internet incentive plan for states including Mississippi, but we have no city plans on the table to use the fiber network already here to create new jobs) to usage plans for the island, to rehabilitating the K/M site to doing something with the old UT plant. Evidently, none of those issues are a priority, even though they all present the real potential to benefit the city with new employment, land reclamation, industrial, business and residential development.

This is how cities like Selma develop dead zones inside the city, whole multi-block areas of stagnant development, decay and neglect. We are right on track for seeing huge craters of neglect in our own city.

Why do we continue to refuse to take care of what we have and use what we already have available, before we take on the burden of dragging in more residents, more infrastructure to be maintained and more services needs that will cost us later. We can't keep doing that. The courts won't allow it. We will have to pave the streets, provide law enforcement and fire services, upgrade whatever utilities are not adequate, not to mention the astronomical legal costs associated with the inevitable lawsuits that are going to be filed.
The city has land and has industrial space available, we just won't do what's necessary to utilize it. Market the UT plant, get the K/M site on the EPA cleanup list and develop more of the island. That's our own fault, not the fault of people in any PAA (Proposed Annexation Areas).

A very good site article about forced annexation can be read at
http://mississippi-law.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html

 

Article Comment Ben Chilcutt commented at 7/9/2009 8:09:00 PM:

Steve, your July 8th The Incredible Shrinking Columbus column had many census based facts, but you never identified the source. Please do.

Since the US only takes census every 10 years and it will again in 2010, I would like to know what governmental organization controlled the census you referred to.

To what extent,if any,does the MSU student body effect the Starkville census?

Also what are the population densities of Columbus,Starkville and Tupelo? Maybe these facts will be helpful in possible annexation decisions.

 

Article Comment Thom Geiger commented at 7/9/2009 10:13:00 PM:

Mr. Chilcutt, I don't know where Steve got his figures, but this site might offer some stats that might prove helpful;

http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/28000lk.html

 

Article Comment Thom Geiger commented at 7/9/2009 10:32:00 PM:

The exact figures Steve included in his article can be found on WiKi at

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi#Major_cities_and_towns

 

Article Comment Unemployed commented at 7/10/2009 9:08:00 AM:

More than likely, the only people who will never leave the City are the ones who get paid for working 5 days a week but have to be on duty 4 days. It's not a mystery to me why it takes forever to get things done around here. Sure wish I had a job like they have, especiall those who are elected and reelected and reelected. They say it's a form of insanity to continue doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results but remaining the same.

 

Article Comment Steve Mullen commented at 7/10/2009 12:11:00 PM:

The figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau's annual population estimate. Numbers are released each July. Here is the link (I'll also add it to the hot link at the end of the column):

http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/cities.html

 

Article Comment S. R. Ussery commented at 7/11/2009 4:49:00 PM:

I earned my degrees at Mississippi State and lived in Starkville for many years. The atmosphere is completely different from ours in Columbus. Starkville is more progressive and has more activities. There continues to be much racism in Columbus, and some of us have difficulty getting decent jobs. Although I would like to work in Columbus and help educate our children, I currently drive 45 miles each day to work because I was not promoted in Lowndes County. Even if the city officials annex more of Lowndes County, what changes will they make? Will Columbus be a better place to live? Will there be more opportunities for advancement, more activities in which to participate, more programs and higher level degrees offered at the W? What will be done to keep people here after completing their education? If our elected officials can answer these questions, I would appreciate it.

 

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