New Albany’s status as a destination for recreation and shopping continues to gain momentum. Several months ago we referred to it here at NAnewsweb as a renaissance, and the trend has grown stronger since then. We are doing many things right that have helped bring us to this juncture. We are also doing some things dead wrong, things that could badly maim, if not kill, our golden goose.
The June 4th announcement by the Department of Interior and National Parks Service that they had officially added Tanglefoot Trail to the National Trails System is the latest of several occurrences, some not even noted when they happened, that have contributed to the renaissance here.
Many factors have contributed to New Albany’s enviable position for growth, prosperity and exceptional quality of life. We will cite a few of them.
That New Albany got four Highway 78 exits, all connecting directly to the city’s business districts was a gift received decades ago, a gift that perhaps went unrecognized at the time. Soon, those exits will be on Interstate 22.
The exits at Highway 15, Central/Carter Avenue, Highway 30 and Glenfield give transient motorists, as well as local people, direct access to New Albany’s retail and service businesses.
Compare that to Tupelo. Was somebody asleep at the switch over there? Tupelo originally got three exits from four-lane Highway 78: Veterans Blvd., Highway 45, and McCullough Blvd., not one of them a convenient connection to the city’s retail businesses.
Heading west on 78, Barnes Crossing Mall and the hundreds of retail and service businesses that have sprung up around it during the last two decades are visible from the highway, but not until it’s too late to take the Highway 45 exit. And if one is lucky enough to exit onto Highway 45, it’s a torturous route to the mall: motorists must go a mile north on Highway 45, exit at Barnes Crossing, then progress slowly through four or five traffic lights before turning onto Gloster, with its hundreds of places to spend money.
And heaven help you if you want to go downtown: take 45 south two miles to Main, then right on Main through four busy intersections and over an active railroad track before arriving downtown. If you’re determined enough, you can continue west on Main through another five or six traffic lights until you finally arrive at Gloster, where you have about an even-money chance of waiting on a BNSF train at “Crosstown” before getting the opportunity to spend your money on the Gloster strip.
Tupelo recently got a new exit from Highway 78, and it will take you for a scenic drive of several miles through swamp and kudzu to Barnes Crossing Mall. Better, but still very little, very late.
New Albany, on the other hand, had four direct routes to its business districts from the start. How did that happen? We don’t know. Did New Albany resident Zack Stewart, who was Northern District Highway Commissioner starting in 1983, make that happen for us? We’re not sure, but he’s a good guy, so let’s give him the credit.
Strong public education
Strong city and county schools over many decades produced a quality work force for Union County. We were impressed when we moved here 15 years ago that all the members of the New Albany School Board were literate and capable. That’s not a joke: over many years of managing newspapers in small communities in Alabama and Mississippi, we observed several elected school board members who were functionally illiterate. Their single qualification to serve on a board of education was that they had a lot of kin folk who voted.
Quality leadership has led to strong public support for the schools. There is not a single Citizens Council private school in the county. We were amazed, and friends elsewhere refused to believe it, when New Albany proposed an $11-million school bond issue in 2001, and voters gave it an 80% favorable response at the polls. If you have not lived elsewhere in the American South, you may have no idea how astonishing that is.
Strong local financial institution
Locally owned and managed BNA Bank (formerly Bank of New Albany) is an uncommon financial institution, having few equals anywhere else in America. It is a conservatively managed bank with about $420-million in assets and excellent ratios. Its board members and officers are all from New Albany. Thus it has been willing and able to provide funding to start and to grow local businesses. This is not to deprecate the quality or performance of other banks in our community; they’re solid, too, but BNA consistently enjoys, year after year, over half of all the banking business in Union County. That’s a powerful factor in the prosperity of New Albany and Union County.
President George H. W. Bush called it “the vision thing.” It is rare to find a business operator anywhere who has “the vision thing” to the degree John Young has it. He acquired several hundred acres of land decades ago and, following his vision, he patiently and shrewdly developed it into a solid and diverse real estate domain: retail space, apartment buildings and, still, a substantial farming operation. Drive on Highway 78 from Highway 15 to Highway 30, and virtually everything you see on the west side of the road is the result of Young’s vision and courage and smart work. It’s a highly visible accomplishment.
There are certainly other local entrepreneurs, with lower profiles, who have taken risks and succeeded in manufacturing, retail and service businesses in New Albany and Union County. All have helped create and sustain the prosperity we enjoy today.
Attractive and Visible Recreational Facilities
When Mayor Walter Johnson — with no little help from Katherine Dye and others — carved the Park Along the River from the swamp and jungle previously there, he started creating what is easily the most attractive first impression for travelers of any town between Memphis and Birmingham. Subsequent city governments have continued the development of the park to include: a professional-quality baseball park and many other attractive well-lighted playing fields; a world-class tennis complex; a water park; a two-mile hiking trail and, coming soon, a permanent amphitheater. Adorned with a sparkling fountain near the highway, its visual impact is powerful.
Toyota, Toyota and Toyota
Recruiting Toyota to build its plant next to Highway 78 at Blue Springs was the first major coup of the 21st century for New Albany and Union County. Many players made that happen. The courage and — here’s that word again — the VISION of the boards of supervisors of Union, Pontotoc and Lee Counties to form the PUL Alliance and put together the hundreds of acres needed by a major manufacturing operation of this scope is still underappreciated. Dozens of people played their rolls to perfection.
The municipal and county governments of the area worked together. David Rumbarger, the CEO of the Community Development Foundation (CDF) and Steve Sorrells, then the head of the Union County Development Association (UCDA), did some very heavy lifting in recruiting Toyota, which was considering at least two other workable locations for the factory. Many others did their part, but the role of Mississippi’s Governor, Haley Barbour, was of enormous importance. He is a terrific salesman and a politician who truly knows the worth of “bringing home the bacon.”
Much has been said about Tanglefoot in the last year; we are amazed by the undeniable impact it has had on our city. The vision, determination and just plain hard work by Betsey Hamilton, New Albany Mayor Tim Kent, Bo Collins and others made it happen for New Albany. From acquiring the right-of-way, to raising funds, to overseeing construction, this group maintained unwavering dedication to bringing the dream of Tanglefoot Trail to reality. The increased visitors to downtown New Albany, bringing their money to the city’s shops, restaurants and hotels, is a direct result of the trail. The soundness of the Tanglefoot Trail idea was further verified on June 4th, 2015, when the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Parks Service designated Tanglefoot a part of the National Trails System.
Room for improvement
New Albany has arrived at an enviable status. We now have the opportunity to utilize the assets with which we’ve been blessed to create an even better life for all here. We also face the risk of fumbling our opportunities.
The good news is that we have some good practices and good people in place. We have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of public money to create better economic opportunities and improved quality of life for our people. But we can do better: we need to take a careful look at how we utilize our assets to ensure that they are being used in the most effective manner.
On the other hand, we are doing some things very wrong, specifically some things that are hostile to those who wish to invest in our community and contribute to its betterment.
We are doing some things that say to people who want to do business in our community: “Sit down and shut up! Listen, and let us tell you what we will allow you to do, what we forbid you to do, what restrictions you must obey if you want to do business in New Albany, Mississippi!”
For more on New Albany Renaissance:
Part I, New Albany Renaissance
Part III, Selling Union County
Part IV, Sign language