The Tupelo Miracle - 2007
By Mac Holladay
It began in 1946. The recent announcement by The Toyota Motor Company that it would build its fifth assembly facility in the Unites States in Tupelo, Mississippi surprised many people. I was not one of those folks. Most people didn’t even know Tupelo was on the “short list.” When you look on the surface you see a town not on an interstate, not near major markets, in a rural area, with a relatively small workforce, and no history of high end automotive employment. But if you take time to know the place, to understand its history the location is brilliant and just another example of a “community that works.” It also helps that Tupelo and the State of Mississippi did a first class job in handling the client and keeping everything confidential throughout the process.
For many people, all they know of Tupelo is that Elvis Presley was born there. Then it was a poor struggling village in one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in this country. The soil was red clay and there were no four lane roads. It is 90 miles from Memphis and 170 miles from Jackson and 200 miles from Nashville. The schools were bad and the place was not growing. George McLean was the editor of the newspaper, The Northeast Mississippi Journal, and he began to talk to folks all over the area about the future. He asked about what they wanted, about what should or could be done, about what the real problems were. Working together across city and county lines, they put together “The Plan.” It was a four page document contained the following words, “This is not the final plan, but one subject to revision as economic changes occur and science progresses. However, any proposals that do not come within the scope of the plan should undergo severe scrutiny before being accepted.” It said this about its people; “A community will not thrive or reach a high degree of attainment if the people are neglected. Poor health, ignorance, uneducated religious leadership and neglected homes stand in the way of progress.” Finally, it stated “A plan such as this accomplishes little or nothing unless it is followed by aggressive and persistent work over a period of years. The effects of such work based on a sound program should be cumulative and more productive from year to year.”
So they went to work. They folded seven community organizations, including their chamber of commerce, into one new inclusive organization. It is called The Community Development Foundation and it remains today as the guiding light of Tupelo’s multi-faceted programs. They took on the toughest problems beginning work on their schools from the very start. They began with a simple economic development strategy to develop dairy farms as value added agriculture. Their first project was to go to England and buy a bull. Day after day, month after month, year after year, they worked together. Everything they did from building quality infrastructure to excellent local government business relations came from The Plan and its successors. Volunteerism became the community’s primary culture. Everyone participated and was welcome. By 1970 when Dr Charles Kaufman at Mississippi State did the first study on the community, there were three times as many volunteers for every facet of community life as the average community of the same size.
While I had heard about Tupelo for some time, when I came to Mississippi to be the Director of the Department of Community and Economic Development in 1988 what I saw was amazing. By then all the economic indicators were powerful. The per capita income was the highest in the state, the public schools graduated kids 80% of whom went on to higher education (there were no private schools), there were more jobs in Lee County than people. The largest employer was a world class hospital, The Northeast Mississippi Medical Center, the largest rural hospital in the nation. In March 1994 The Wall Street Journal featured Tupelo on the front page. The headline read “Southern Comfort: Tupelo Concocts An Effective Recipe For Economic Health” The sub-headlines were “Education, Racial Harmony Lure Firms, Which Then Are Expected To Pitch In” and “Legacy of a Visionary Citizen.” Staff reporter Helene Cooper (now with The New York Times) wrote an in-depth comprehensive piece that explored to community’s incredible commitment to education, diversity and economic change. The unending search for community excellence was evident to anyone who read the article.
As many communities with similar traditional manufacturing bases, Northeast Mississippi faced great challenges in the late 1990’s and as the recession hit in 2001 they faced serious job losses. But instead looking back Tupelo and its neighbors fought to diversify and continue to try different strategies. In 2004 our firm worked with the region to create a comprehensive regional workforce development plan. The Community Development Foundation and its partner, The CREATE Foundation, took the recommendations and went to work to intensify their efforts to train and re-train the existing workforce and increase the higher education offerings in the area. The intensified programs included new career awareness in elementary and secondary schools, new efforts to promote the value of education, adopting high school and GED requirements for area employers, new direct relations between business and education, and expanded GED programming.
So you see the Toyota announcement was not a surprise. The firm’s decision was not about incentives or having a “certified auto site.” It was about what Tupelo has worked so hard to produce: a quality workforce. Here is what Toyota Executive Vice President Ray Tanguay said at the announcement: “On my visits to Northern Mississippi, I have talked with area companies and observed their workforce. What I observed were people who are educated, ethical and friendly with a strong work ethic –a perfect match for the Toyota Way. The area’s existing companies had high praise for the workforce. They were definitely the best sales people.”
After all is said and done, the Tupelo miracle continues and they continue to keep building a great place one day at a time. And they know and will keep focus on the number one issue in economic development – the quality of the workforce.
J. Mac Holladay, CCE, is CEO of Atlanta-based Market Street Services, a community and economic development consulting firm.