A Community Development Feast

January 01, 1999
By  Ellen Eubank

If you're considering which cities have made the greatest strides in economic development in recent years, Tupelo, Miss., may not be the first location that comes to mind. Yet it has twice been designated an "All-American City" by the National Civic League.

One key to Tupelo's success has been the Community Development Foundation (CDF), a private, economic development organization begun in 1948. Just past its 50th anniversary, CDF has succeeded in not only attracting industry to Tupelo and Lee County, but also raising the county's per capita income and investing in education and worker training. Just last year, CDF helped attract 1,000 manufacturing jobs and 1,700 service jobs to Lee County. But CDF doesn't just focus on pursuing jobs; it emphasizes community investment and improving the quality of life for area residents. And CDF works to promote the entire area, not just Tupelo. Long before terms, such as "regionalism" and "economic diversification," became buzzwords, CDF was making those concepts a reality in this region.

The Original Recipe

Harry Martin, CDF president since 1956, says his organization seeks to be proactive, not reactive. CDF markets extensively throughout the country, and even globally. Longstanding relationships with public and private entities in the area help CDF promote Lee County with one voice. CDF has fostered the growth of diverse industries and businesses throughout the county "as a kind of insurance plan against economic slowdowns," Martin says. "Everyone benefits from the growth, not just the central city."

From the beginning, CDF has taken a strategic approach to the region's development. The "Tupelo Plan" began in 1946 when local businesses raised $40,000 to promote their community. George McLean, editor and publisher of the Tupelo Daily Journal, spearheaded the effort to develop a strategic plan for Lee County. The plan outlined a philosophy of economic development--the pursuit of industry that mutually benefits towns and rural areas in the region. The organization formed to implement this plan, CDF, still follows that philosophy today.

The Right Job Mix

By the early 1960s, Lee was one of the first counties in Mississippi to have an industrial payroll that exceeded its agricultural payroll. Today, Lee has more than 55,000 jobs and leads the state in manufacturing jobs. Through the years, CDF has purchased and developed the land for nine industrial parks scattered throughout the county, consistently creating sites that can be marketed to clients looking for new locations. CDF has also been instrumental in promoting local initiatives, such as the Tupelo Furniture Market, which in 10 years has become the second-largest furniture market in the country.

CDF does not "try to be everything to everybody," Martin says, preferring instead to focus on specific industries and companies in its marketing efforts. The organization is guided by a strategic plan that is reworked every 10 years to provide new direction and goals. Other communities "worry when they lose labor-intensive jobs to south of the border, but that does not matter to Tupelo," Martin says. "We follow our plan and replace those jobs with better-paying ones." CDF consistently seeks to recruit diverse businesses--representing both manufacturing and service industries--and "spread the wealth" of new and expanding businesses throughout the region.

The Education Ingredient

As CDF continues to pursue industries that will provide better opportunities and higher incomes for the region's residents, the top issue in recruiting for those industries has become the availability of a skilled work force. Throughout the past decades, CDF has brought together public and private groups to enhance education and training. For 23 years, they have sponsored a teacher business education day that now brings in over 1,000 teachers to interact with business leaders as they create new ways to work together on work force development.

CDF's latest effort for education is the Northeast Mississippi Advanced Education Center, developed in connection with area schools and colleges, as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority. The center will offer advanced educational opportunities in response to local business needs. Local colleges, including Itawamba Community College, the University of Mississippi, and Mississippi University for Women, will offer classes at the center, including courses on basic work skills and professional development. The center is part of CDF's ongoing initiative to build a culture of worker development, starting in secondary schools. Workers have a wide variety of opportunities to gain marketable skills for local industries, such as furniture manufacturing and health care.

A Pinch of Outside Help

As CDF completes work on its next 10-year plan, it will continue to follow its strategy of involving as many groups as possible in the planning process. CDF also values outside resources and experts who can apply their knowledge to local issues. These outside sources can help the local leadership discover Tupelo's real potential, Martin says, and help Tupelo prioritize and target companies that will build the community and attract "not only more, but better, jobs."

Martin sees the success of CDF as the natural consequence of strategic planning and aggressive marketing. All of the diverse groups in the community respect CDF, he says, because they see the benefits of what CDF does. "Results do attract people," he says. As CDF enters the new millennium, Martin says the group will focus on new industries that can contribute to their goals of increasing per capita income and building target clusters of industries. But mostly CDF will continue along the same path--strategic work that increases opportunities for Lee County residents, making it the kind of place where people want to live and work.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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