Perhaps my favorite gatherings over the course of my professional year are those that involve the Mississippi Municipal League. This organization, commonly referred to as the “MML,” recently held its annual conference. Old acquaintances and a large influx of newly elected officials from Mississippi’s cities and towns only served to renew my respect for this group. I never cease to be fascinated by the unbridled enthusiasm that drives these mayors, aldermen, councilmen, city managers, city clerks and many others. The reality is if viewed from a distance and based purely on statistical trends a goodly number of Mississippi’s small towns should have been out of business sometime ago.
Hardly a week goes by that we are not confronted with yet another report highlighting the decline in rural areas, and now even the once muscular suburbs have joined the group hearing the warning bell. Mississippi has 297 municipalities. All but a scant handful have less than 10,000 residents. The vast majority have less than 5,000.
It is virtually impossible not to admire those who have offered themselves for leadership roles in these towns, once referred to by an observer as “Tiny Fountainheads of Democracy.” A few hours sitting in the shade on a sultry August day induces memories of small town Mississippi in days gone by when the pace of life was a little slower. There once was a time when many of these towns were for the most part self contained. Every town produced things that other towns needed. We were the market places for each other.
Those of you who have been around a while can remember when banks were locally owned and controlled and often carried the name of the town or county that they served. Hardware and clothing stores proudly advertised their multiple decades of existence and carried the name of the family that founded them and that passed the establishment on from generation to generation. Farmers from the surrounding countryside came to these local commercial centers to buy raw materials, and then later returned to market the products of their labors. For example, one can recall the time when dairy farms were everywhere and Mississippi-owned and operated dairy manufacturing facilities seemed nearly as numerous. One could easily lose count of the milk, cheese and ice cream producers that dotted the state. The same could be said for establishments like cotton gins and wood yards. Highways were not the best, but rail transportation was accessible by nearly every town in the state.
All of the activity generated by these hubs of commerce made for a fairly stable and often tranquil environment. Indeed, this ability to make a living and to contribute to a healthy community life that contained schools, churches, hospitals and doctors and many other accoutrements of community life contributed mightily to a sense of place in Mississippi’s small towns.
Compared to the tasks facing today’s municipal officials this bygone era must seem like the good ole days. Nowadays, the bank (or banks) in town is most likely a branch of a regionally-held and controlled bank with a catchy well-researched name having nothing to do with the place where it is located. In many locales Wal-Mart has consumed the trade that once darkened the doors of the family-owned establishments. Where else can you get motor oil, a television, lingerie and bologna in the same store? The descendants of our dairy cows can all be found in west Texas and southern New Mexico and Arizona. The railroad tracks are now being converted to walking trails.
The globe has indeed shrunk and the global economy has landed on the front steps of city hall in every little town in Mississippi. The new era of manufacturing is putting intense pressure on local schools to prepare students in ever advancing disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). National chain stores in spacious shopping centers are changing the appearance of Main Street. Four-lane highways leading in all directions give many the option of spending their money elsewhere. In government, national legislation such as “No Child Left Behind,” “Obamacare” and various Environmental Protection Agency regulations all remove local discretion over these and many other activities from the hands of local decision-makers.
Indeed, it is a changed world. It is clear that municipal officials in Mississippi’s towns feel the urgency of standing in the gap for the citizens who put them there. There is one major thing that they have going for them in their efforts to maintain local viability: That is the tremendous sense of place that anchors Mississippians to the towns they call home. These sentiments are powerful and they are difficult to quantify on any sort of academic survey, but they are indeed real.
Every citizen of these precious towns and the officials who they chose to represent them owe it to each other to shoulder the load in striving to keep pace in a fast-moving world. The livelihood and the legacy contained in these hometowns are too important to lose.
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.