Exploring: The Ones At The Helm
By William Browning
(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series looking at the past, present and future of Water Valley growth.)
WATER VALLEY, Miss. – The conventions of Lilliputian municipalities call a mayor, in the military sense, to attention.
Having taken office, he begins a four-year tour-of-duty grinning for staged pictures, giving handshakes, presiding over mandatory public forums relating to city affairs (during which he cultivates the art of the diplomatic response), and addressing – each Spring – the crowd at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet.
First-term Mayor Bill Norris began this last obligation Monday night at the First Baptist Church by saying, “Water Valley is on the verge of growing in businesses, homes and industries. (There is a) very promising outlook for today and tomorrow.
“And this is being done through you,” the mayor told the crowd.
Its a recurring theme. Whether they are new to Water Valley, moved just recently back, or have been here all along, get a horde of them together and Vallians always end up complimenting themselves. And its justified.
Shortly before the Chamber banquet, in an interview with the Herald, Norris – who ran for mayor two years ago because “I wanted to have the opportunity to make a difference. I care about people and I care about this town.” – expounded on the role of the townspeople.
“Water Valley’s future is in the hands of its citizens. The town’s government can conduct the day-to-day business of running the city…but it is up to the citizens of the town, the newcomers and young people, to open restaurants, shops, and to bring new development to our community.”
During the banquet Monday evening, Joe Newman took the reins as the Chamber’s president. Newman has put in 22 years with the city’s electric department, and is currently the Superintendent of that department.
Echoing the concerns of many Vallians, Newman, 48, said that promoting the town’s downtown business area is a chief goal he has set for his time as president. He aims to do this is by eventually integrating the annual Watermelon Carnival into the area; kicking off a weekly “informal” concert at Railroad Park’s bandstand in two weeks; and by the Chamber continuing its support of the fledgling Main Street Association program.
“The Chamber has supported the Main Street program, financially, as much as any other group,” said Newman.
Lee McMinn is the spokesman for Water Valley’s Main Street Association. Of the progressive crowd, McMinn has aligned himself with groups (Main Street and the upstart Arts Council) geared toward collaring the town’s potential.
“A large percentage of new residents (to Water Valley) are creative-type people,” said McMinn, a local realtor. “Most of them are drawn here by the low cost of housing coupled with the close proximity to the University of Mississippi and the Oxford night life. However, it is difficult to keep (these people) here for a prolonged period. Once they graduate from college or get a better career opportunity, they move on. So, in order to attract more of these people, they must feel they have a stake in the future of our town.
“The new Main Street program gives several new residents the opportunity to volunteer. And it will be interesting to see how the old establishment and the new work together to improve and preserve our Main Street.”
Along with McMinn, Sherry Fischer is in the realty business.
A lifelong Vallian, Fischer took up the trade in 1999.
“Since I’ve been in business, every year I’ve thought, ‘What goes up, must come down,’” Fischer, 39, said of the area’s real estate boom. “But that hasn’t happened yet.
“Most people’s destination is Oxford,” added Fischer. “But when they get there, the prices are too high. And Water Valley seems to be the first place they branch out to.” Fischer estimated that realty prices inside the city limits of Oxford are more than triple those within the limits of Water Valley.
During his Chamber speech, Norris also commented on the Water Valley School District. A point of compliment, the district has retained, for the past two years, a Level 5 accreditation.
Many finger Superintendent Sammy Higdon, who has held that position for the past eight years, as the man behind the district’s success. Higdon, 59, is quick to point out that the district’s staff is the backbone of any success it sees.
Higdon also said that the district’s development goes hand and hand with the town’s.
“You could not ask for a better community,” Higdon added.
“The school is very dependent on the community and the community is very dependent on the school.”
By way of explanation, he noted that if the district’s enrollment decreases by just 10 students for the next school year, they lose $45,000 in state funding. (When Higdon first held an administrative title in Water Valley – in 1985 as elementary principal – the district had 912 students. That number is at 742 today.)
“All we have been doing is staying even,” said Higdon of the last few years of enrollment numbers.
During his interview, Norris too spoke of fears (“The mayor of any town, large or small, should have concerns.”), citing “loss of jobs and falling sales tax collections” as tops on that list.
The unemployment rate in Yalobusha county has hovered just above 7.5 percent for the past five years. Currently, it sits at 8.7 percent.
The sales tax revenue for the town in 2006 was $449,334.04; in 2005 it was $417,195.55; in 2004, $429,559.20; in 2003, $418,644.97; and in 2002, $425, 741.54.
“As a city, we must work to clean up our town, to put our best face forward to attract new businesses, industry, and, most of all, people to live here,” said Norris.
Turning toward the recent formation of the Planning Commission, Norris – almost on cue – noted the city of Oxford’s growth.
“There are several buildings that have been constructed up and down (Water Valley’s) Main Street in the last 10-15 years that do not resemble the architecture of Main Street.” An old Victorian-styled number, the town’s central strip has been slowly embracing something of a shabby version of the New South. “Hopefully, the Planning Commission will be the first contact to assure continuity for downtown.
“These are just some of the many things we have in the works,” Norris said towards the end of the Herald’s interview.
Slipping then into a seemingly “at-ease” mode, he added, “People just need to be patient. It’s a virtue.”