In a recent Tuesday the streets of many of our municipalities were lined with fellow citizens and supporters of mayoral, aldermanic and council candidates waving signs and banners in behalf of their favorites. It was gratifying to see such an outpouring because in many of these towns the stakes are perhaps higher than they have ever been before.
As an observer of government in a democratic society it is always invigorating to watch local government elections unfold. If my memory serves me correctly it was French philosopher and student of all things American, Alexis de Tocqueville, who called this nation’s many small towns “tiny fountainheads of democracy.”
Reasons for being able to make this claim have appeared in this space recently. The over decade-long loss of population in rural areas has been clearly documented by census data. There is an unmistakable and growing trend of a population shift from rural areas to urban and suburban centers where higher paying jobs and a varied and higher quality of life are proving to be the draw. Now comes the good news that the departure of manufacturing beyond America’s shores is clearly reversing itself. Although a manufacturing renaissance is underway, the jobs that are returning are decidedly different from the jobs that departed. The new industrialization is being driven by those who have skills in science, technology, engineering, math and the other highly technical disciplines.
What do these sets of circumstances have to do with the plight of Mississippi’s municipalities? Mississippi municipalities have it within them to act as beachheads of innovation – as counterweights to the current magnetism of urban centers. As such they can put the brakes on the rural brain drain.
Examples are growing in number. There is the modern Nissan manufacturing facility adjacent to the City of Madison and its award-winning residential and business environment. Similarly, the Toyota manufacturing plant is located in close proximity to Tupelo, New Albany and the University of Mississippi and its research units. Then there is continuing development on numerous fronts in the Golden Triangle with Mississippi State University as its anchor along with Starkville, Columbus and West Point. Hattiesburg is at the center of the dynamic growth in the Pine Belt region of South Mississippi.
Little, if any, of this growth and similar development in other areas of the state would have happened in the absence of, at times, tough decision-making by innovative local leadership. It has been demonstrated time and again that the biggest draws for business and industry are an exceptional quality of life, an increasingly high tech and highly trained workforce and access to the best of the best in communication and transportation.
Our university towns are given a leg up by being blessed with exceptional educational infrastructure. It is left for them to create the type of overall living environment that will enable these cities to compete in behalf of the state with the growing magnetism of urban life beyond the borders of Mississippi. It is these towns that attract the sons and daughters – the best and the brightest – from all of Mississippi’s 82 counties. It is up to these venues of knowledge to make the most of this critical mass of talent, and if they do so it will redound to the benefits of all those seeking employment and indeed to all Mississippians.
A number of other Mississippi municipalities have discovered their own “place based” solutions to grasping the future. The City of Madison has been in increasing demand for three decades. The one largely responsible for nurturing that highly desirable city to its current position, Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler, has just been re-elected to an unprecedented ninth term. A number of cities in Desoto County are competing in the quality of life sweepstakes with economic growth and increased property values as two of the prizes. Policymaker decisions focusing on health-related amenities such as bike paths, sidewalks, recreation facilities and the general appearance of these cities are setting them apart, and in so doing they collectively give Mississippi a chance to succeed where research says the growing urban and suburban areas have the upper hand.
Unfortunately, there are those towns which lack the resources, or in some cases, the will to answer the challenge. It will be up to them to redouble their efforts to seek the most innovative leadership possible. For these towns the stakes may be as great as survival itself.
With Mississippi being one of the most rural states in the country the challenge is clear. Decisions made within her engines of creativity and economic development – her cities and towns – will determine whether or not we succeed where the people are. Just as there is a great deal of truth in the old Tip O’Neal saying that “all politics is local,” there is also wisdom in the comment that, in this rapidly changing age, “just being good enough is no longer good enough.”
Mayors, alderpersons, and council members have greater challenges before them than ever before. Those challenges are to advance the quality of life in your cities in every category of living. The competition is stiff and the best and brightest are mobile. They have many options from which to choose in living out their lives.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.