By William Browning
(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series looking at the past, present and future of Water Valley growth.)
WATER VALLEY, Miss. – Some things don’t change.
Glancing 50 years back, a four month stretch in 1958 saw the pages of this newspaper have headlines announcing that “technicalities” were barring the opening of a poultry plant; that business activity, compared to the previous year, was down 2 percent; and that a city planning commission had been created.
Apparently, the town had watched as “a large number of people” had migrated into Water Valley from surrounding towns because of lower realty prices. City officials expected the trend to continue.
Native Vallians today say the town is in the same position – that is to say ripe, but no one seemingly hungry enough to pick – as it was 50 years ago.
“A lot of people are actively trying to get industry to come (to Water Valley),” said Jack Gurner, who, along with his wife Jessie, came back to the town 20 years ago after being gone for 15. “And in the last couple of years we have seen a definite upsurge in the real estate market.
“But we’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity.”
When asked about these present-day opportunities, another native Vallian who returned after some years away, Eddie Ray, laid some spades. The president of Mechanics Bank adduced the “dramatic improvement” of the Water Valley District (the district has received the state’s highest level of accreditation – Level Five – for the past two years), along with the property value increase during the last decade.
“And we’re probably on the verge of having someone build a bona-fide subdivision,” said Ray.
The triangle that Water Valley sits in has as its corners Oxford, Batesville and Grenada.
“The economy in the surrounding areas is booming. I mean, never has it been as good as it is right now,” said Jessie Gurner.
Oxford prospers with the cultural – not to mention Bacchanalian – environment established by the University of Mississippi, the state’s flagship institution.
There are 210 miles between Jackson and Memphis. The city of Grenada rises at the midway point between those metropolitan towns, essentially giving that town its own trade-area.
And Batesville, coupling a proletarian population with Interstate 55 slicing through its backyard, has seen a steady stream of industry set up shop within its city limits over the past 10 years.
Despite the fact that Water Valley is in the center of these three flourishes, Jack Gurner says, “the economy of the town has steadily depressed” over the years.
The Gurners left Water Valley in the late 1960s.
“The economy (when we left) was not booming by any means, but there weren’t a lot of empty store buildings, and the people shopped locally,” said Jack Gurner, adding, “You could still make a living in this town.”
The couple spent time in Grenada and in Memphis – where Jack worked as a photographer for the Memphis Press-Scimitar – before making the decision, in early 1987, to return to Water Valley. The reasons they cited for moving back included the “friendliness, lack of crime and the small-town atmosphere.” Upon returning, they moved into a home on Dupuy Street (“I can literally throw a rock and hit the spot where I was born,” said Jack.) and opened Gurner’s Photography.
“When you’ve been away for some time, and then look at the town, and come back into it after being gone for a while, you realize it’s a very friendly town,” said Jack Gurner.
For Jessie Gurner, the initial difference she saw, after moving back, was physical.
“Of course, we came back right after the tornado (in 1984),” she said. “A lot of the old trees, and a lot of the old homes, were gone. The town just looked different.”
But Jack Gurner, 57, said he remembers noticing that the town’s sensibilities had changed.
“You were beginning to see empty store-fronts about that time, and you could tell the economy had changed,” he said. “Water Valley had gone to the discount store mentality – as had the whole country. And that’s an impossible situation for a local merchant to keep up with.”
It has gotten progressively worse – presently, 18 store-fronts along Main Street are vacant – and that is something that worries Bill Taylor.
“I’m worried about the businesses,” Taylor said. “I want to see us fill up these storefronts on Main Street.”
Taylor, a senior trust officer at Mechanics Bank, and his wife Pam, moved back to Water Valley three years ago after 15 years spent in Jackson.
“My main motivation for wanting to see this town reach its potential is so that my kids won’t have to move away,” said Taylor, 42, who has three children – two in the local elementary school; one in junior-high. “I want them to have the opportunity to come back here and work after college.”
When asked to comment on some of the town’s strengths, Taylor said simply, “the people here.”
“The biggest strength we have is the people here. I have heard that said over and over again, and I agree with it.
“But, we need to get all of these people moving in the same direction. And we need some publicity. For example, you’ve got (Oxford), just 17 miles north of us, and I don’t think people know what all we have to offer here.”
It’s that same notion that seems to keep popping up.
“We’ve certainly got the opportunity, but something needs to happen,” said Jessie Gurner.