February 25, 2014 9:46:50 AM
On Sunday, we applauded the trip made to Chattanooga by a group of community and city officials in an effort to gather ideas for redevelopment of the city of Columbus, most specifically The Island.
Making the trip at their own expense suggests this was more than a junket, but an earnest effort to learn from Chattanooga, whose transformation over the past 30 years has been nothing short of remarkable. Chattanooga's development of its downtown and water front was of particular interest. In an earlier era, a river was an asset to be envied and even today there is great potential in maximizing the benefits that come with the Tombigbee River.
For all the similarities, Chattanooga and Columbus are vastly different. The former, with a population of 170,000, is Tennessee's fourth largest city. Columbus, meanwhile, has a population of just 24,000.
A far better model exists just 70 miles up the road in Tupelo.
As Columbus leaders try to create a vision of the city's future -- does it lie in tourism, retail, redevelopment or all three? -- Tupelo seems to have found a formula that Columbus would do well to emulate: There is nothing that has been achieved in Tupelo that cannot be achieved here.
Thirty years ago, Columbus' population was larger than Tupelo's. Now, those numbers have almost flipped.
A number of things: First, Tupelo put together a real plan for retail growth centered around an empty expanse of bottom land that became The Mall at Barnes Crossing. The mall shifted the city's retail focus north and the abundance of available land has produced a sprawling retail development that dwarfs anything Columbus has to offer. Meanwhile, the city was careful to tend to its downtown, pumping money into the Main Street area and luring new development into the area. As the city's retail heart moved north, it was careful not to condemn downtown to a future of empty storefronts and second-hand stores. That downtown development hinged on the city's bold move to build a state-of-the-art entertainment venue on the location of its old Downtown Mall. Today, the BancorpSouth Arena is a major entertainment draw for a three-state region.
Second, Tupelo maintained its commitment to a strong school system. Tupelo's schools long ago established a record for excellence that has withstood the encroachment of private schools and flight out of the school system. The result: a strong, diverse student base that enjoys the support of a unified community.
Third, Tupelo has taken a serious approach to redevelopment of blighted areas. Currently, the city is redeveloping an area along West Jackson Street near downtown, an area that had once been a safe middle-income neighborhood that had fallen on hard times. In recent years, the crime rate in that area rose as more and more families fled. The city has invested several million dollars in a fund to buy as many as 50 properties in the area, either leveling those properties or refurbishing them. The city has created parks and green spaces where there were once dilapidated apartment complexes. As the program continues, families are moving back into the area. It is becoming what it once was, a safe neighborhood convenient to the amenities of a thriving downtown.
What is very important to note that all of these things could not have happened without the significant contributions of the private sector. While the city has made its commitment, it has had a partner with the private sector in every more it has made.
When the private sector is optimistic about the city's future, it will respond by investing in the kinds of moves that we have seen in Tupelo.
But when the private sector has lost confidence in a city's elected leadership it cannot be induced to sign on.
What have our elected officials done to inspire that confidence?
Very little. What we see today is a Columbus that has never been more racially-polarized. Race politics have permeated virtually every corner of public policy. Our school system is in disarray, our city government's big move in the past year is the Trotter Center-J5/Broaddus debacle.
Private investment wants no part of such a toxic environment. City officials may win a few perceived battles, but in doing so, they lose the war. In fact, we all lose, both black and white.
Clearly, if we are to move forward, we must move forward together.
It can work.
Chattanooga is an example on a large-scale.
Tupelo is an example on a practical scale.
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