Steve Mullen: The Incredible Shrinking Columbus

July 8, 2009

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


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." 




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:

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.