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Partnerships making strides improving city’s economy

Meridian — Imagine if you had a whole team of people working to address systemic problems in your community including inadequate resources for education and housing. And that the lessons learned from your community would be used as a template for the rest of the cities in the state that have similar problems.

Programs in Meridian are doing just that. The Community-University Capacity Development Partnership has members ranging from the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University (MSU) and the City of Meridian to the East Mississippi Business Development Corp. and Lauderdale Habitat for Humanity. A large amount of funding for one of the projects has been provided by the Riley Foundation, a local non-profit organization founded by physicians who are former owners of Riley Hospital.

Dr. Judy Phillips, research analyst, John C. Stennis Institute for Government in Starkville, said there are similar problems in cities across the state in three major areas: lack of adequate education resources, substandard housing and deteriorating downtown areas.

“These problems are common across the state except in counties like DeSoto and on the Coast,” Phillips said. “There are exceptions. But these are the problems we face, and the issues we are constantly called upon by municipalities to help them develop solutions for. The demand for services from cities outstrips their ability to meet them. We need to find a way to bring in more resources to the State of Mississippi.”

If it works here, then…

With the partnership program in Meridian, a number of innovative approaches are being used to meet the challenges. And what is learned there can be used as a template for other cities in the state in similar straits.

“We’re looking for replicability,” Phillips said. “If we can make it work in Meridian, we hope to replicate it other places in the state. It is a very intense, time- consuming process involving long-range strategies. Meridian has spent a long time working on these issues.”

Phillips said many of the challenges faced by Meridian and other cities in Mississippi come down to this simple reality: Mississippi has among the highest rate of people living in poverty of any state in the country.

“Children from poverty backgrounds face the greatest educational challenges, and consequently need the most resources and best teachers,” Phillips said. “Our K-12 educational system is under-resourced to meet the needs of students. The result is the spiral of low educational attainment and poverty, generation after generation. Mississippi teachers have among the lowest salaries in the nation. Consequently, upon graduation Mississippi faces the ‘brain drain’ — students receive their degrees and leave the state. We face the same problem in industry — our salaries are just not competitive.”

One effort in Meridian to address the issue is helping students prepare for careers in the medical field. While there is a large demand for healthcare workers, because of the high cost of laboratories and equipment, it is not realistic for every single school to have sophisticated science laboratory infrastructure.

“A way to address this issue is to have a regional education center where students from all surrounding schools can come to the center for special educational activities and workshops,” Phillips said. “The nature of the center makes it eligible for significant amounts of federal funding. This allows Meridian to augment state education resources with federal resources they wouldn’t be eligible for without a center like that.”

Economic development strategies

Another big need is to revitalize deteriorating downtowns with alternative economic development strategies. Throughout the state, downtowns have found it difficult to compete with the big chain stores that have located outside of the downtown business district.

“Consequently, our inner core cities have fallen into decline,” Phillips said. “We have exceptions in DeSoto County and down on the Coast. But throughout the state, downtown urban corridors are deteriorating. What we really need are strategies for revitalizing these areas.”

Meridian has formed a community development entity (CDE), Meridian Community Development and Investment Corp., a private non-profit formed with the intent of redeveloping downtown Meridian.

“We’re putting together a master plan to do that work,” said Bob Malone, a member of the board for the Meridian Community Development and Investment Corporation. “This corporation is specifically structured to meet Treasury Department requirements for a CDE. That will qualify us to apply for and use New Market Tax Credits, a relatively new form of tax credit the treasury is authorizing intended to stimulate development and investment in low-income communities.”

Meridian has received a commitment from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to allocate New Market Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits for an amount of up to $30 million for projects downtown. Currently the board is working with architects and engineers to qualify different projects so when the Treasury Department announces allocations, some defined and qualified projects will be ready to go. Malone said at the same time, they are seeking private investments, plus federal and state grants for projects.

“We will definitely make progress on restoring downtown,” Malone said. “The problem we are working on right now is exactly what we can do and how fast. One of the things we are attempting to do is combine as many of our problems into one basket where we can work on them all at once.”

For example, by combining the need to redevelop the downtown with efforts to improve educational resources, the group hopes to restore one of the historic buildings downtown owned by the city into an educational institution that could be used by the Meridian Community College, MSU and the Meridian Public Schools. The high-quality science laboratory described above is planned to be combined with a children’s discovery museum, with activities coordinating the curriculum at local schools.

Range of housing issues

Another major need for Meridian and other cities in the state is to provide high-quality, energy-efficient housing for low-income residents. In Meridian AmeriCorps, a federal jobs training program, has been established to train low-income people in construction skills to build energy-efficient homes to support Habitat for Humanity and independent builders.

“The concept is for people to work with Habitat for Humanity to learn, and after they master skills, they will able to go out and do this work independently,” said Louis Sutton, director of community support service, Meridian Housing Authority. “Anytime you are looking at community redevelopment, it must be looked at from a holistic point of view. One factor will affect another. You must bring knowledge and awareness to the challenges in order to develop an overall strategy to address the issues.”

Another effort of the housing authority is a family self-sufficiency program. Low-income residents are educated on finance and home ownership, and are given help to establish an escrow account to pay towards a down payment on a house. They are also educated on various programs available to help purchase homes. Sutton said this helps assure that when affordable homes are built, there is a market for them.

Encouraging construction inside the city limits of the city is critical. One of the challenges — in many cities in the state, not just Meridian — is that there are very few new housing starts inside city limits. Most of the new construction is going on in outlying suburbs.

“The only way the community will grow is if you have affordable, quality housing within the city limits,” Sutton said. “Much of the city housing stock is 50 to 100 years old. We need to look at strategies to encourage new construction not just for lower income residents, but for middle- and upper-income people, attracting them back to the city.”

Public-private partnerships = progress

Wade Jones, president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corp. (EMBDC), said it is partnerships among many different private and public entities that are responsible for such good progress being made in Meridian.

“Enhancing a community for future growth requires communication and planning across many social, economical, and political lines,” Jones said. “In many instances and on many tasks, the community is expected to deliver with a limited amount of resources. To succeed in doing more with less, Meridian is learning to do more with others. In the end, our coordination and communication for quality-of-life projects is enhancing our future.”

Jones said EMBDC has dedicated itself to improving the quality of life for all citizens in East Mississippi by targeting its focus on three areas: improved education, nurturing existing industry, and seeking new economic growth. A guiding principal for these endeavors is honoring diversity.

“Like chambers of commerce and development foundations across the state, Meridian has committees with swarms of volunteers who understand and want to support positive growth for everyone,” Jones said. “The EMBDC’s Education Committee is not only interested in improving schools, but preparing students for life and the workplace. With this in mind, the committee has started The School Counts program which involves businesses in helping students develop life skills required for success in both education and the workplace.”

Ocean Springs-based freelance journalist Becky Gillette writers regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her via e-mail at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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