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Attala County Courthouse, Kosciusko

JACK WEATHERLY: Lifting spirits in a small town fighting to thrive



For most viewers, Kosciusko is a place holder at the top of Jackson-area television weather maps.

But my hometown, which is in the center of the state and my heart, has made newscasts a couple of times recently for other reasons.

One story signaled a cultural change for the Attala County seat.

The town will soon be able to legally sell liquor for the first time in nearly 100 years.

The other is that its hospital was saved from closing.

Not since the beginning of Prohibition in 1920 have spirits been legally sold in Kosciusko, or anywhere in Attala County, or in all or parts of 35 other counties of the 82 in the state.

A strong majority of Kosciusko voters — 868 to 464 — see it as a good thing, an economic development tool.

Others see the outcome of the June 9 referendum as a tool of the Devil. They see it in biblical terms, rather than the long-time-coming result of the repeal in 1933 of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Kosciusko may be in the outer ring of the weather map orbit, but, economically speaking, it is just outside the Jackson metropolitan gravitational pull. It has to stand on its own.

I was editor of The Star-Herald in Kosciusko for seven years in the 1990s, as I dragged my family around the South from one newspaper to another. Under my guidance, The Star-Herald recorded the successes and failures in detail — sometimes unflatteringly so, even if it meant confronting in the aisle of the grocery or church people we had written about.

The paper’s publisher and editor in the early part of the 20th century was Great-Uncle Wiley Sanders, an editorial writer par excellence who coined the term “Beehive of the Hills.” That logo was at the top of the first page forever till it was removed in recent years, though it survives in a motto on the paper’s flag. The hive is woven into the fabric of the community. There is a bronze-colored hive sculpture on each of the four corners of the courthouse lawn.

The little paper still has clout. A column by the paper’s current publisher and editor, James Phillips, picked up on an argument by backers of the measure — to the effect that no one under 50 had had a chance to vote on the matter. The last time the electorate demanded a referendum was in the early ’80s, when it was voted down.

That observation helped turn the tide in favor of legalization, especially energizing those under 50, according to City Clerk Hart Pettit.

The youth movement carried the day, despite remonstrations of those citing biblical passages about the dangers that lie in that direction. (”Let us watch and be sober.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:6)

It might have helped that Phillips used Scripture to defend legalization.

Kosy was a wilder place back in its earlier days. There were dog races (probably not greyhounds), and, no doubt, gambling associated with that.

And booze, for sure.

In 1892, W.A. Gilliland advertised in the Kosciusko Star that he sold “whiskeys, wines, gins and alcohol.”

Now it remains for the Board of Aldermen to decide how to manifest the will of the people. The ballot simply called for “legal sale of alcoholic liquors.”

What does that mean? Package stores would mean no one would have to hop in the pickup and drive to Vaiden or West. Still, what about the “dry” county surrounding the city.

Wine and mixed drinks are very profitable for restaurants. Say a local restaurant in town starts offering alcohol and drawing off business from one that doesn’t. Or that a chain studies the market and sees that Kosciusko is on the well-traveled Natchez Trace Parkway and is the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey.

Investment and competition feed an economy.

That other news story?

Montfort Jones Memorial Hospital has been saved from closure. Like so many other rural hospitals, it simply could no longer make it on its own.

Much of the blame has been attributed to the refusal of the state to expand Medicaid coverage.

Baptist Health Systems of Jackson took over control of the hospital on June 1. Montfort Jones, opened in 1937, had laid off 38 in 2014 and closed its intensive care unit.

Cost of the bailout? The 71-bed acute-care hospital, now reclassified as a critical-care institution and called Baptist Medical Center-Attala, can have no more than 25.

A not-so-recent news item was the sale two years ago of the 120-year-old, $1.8 billion Merchants & Farmers Bank to Renasant Bank of Tupelo.

M&F had only a few years earlier made a strong bricks-and-mortar statement by building a handsome and historically appropriate headquarters on the courthouse square of the city of 7,400 souls.

Despite the sound of the new owner, which suggests a renaissance, a rebirth — the watchword for banks and indeed the rest of the nation in the post-recession economy — the immediate effect was the elimination of a number of high-paying administrative and support jobs .

Such things are enough to sober a community.

But a country town can survive.  Kosy has since 1836.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly  at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1015.



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