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Without Renewal, Towns Often Fade Away

Fumes of contention rise into the sky wherever people live together. Dogs barking all night on Eckford Street, trees encroaching into a neighbor’s yard, a couple loudly debating each other’s shortcomings: none are uncommon in a neighborhood. In our town City Hall hears sharp discussion even on when the Aldermen meet and where they should sit.

Add the imposition of often unwanted and unsolicited change on a town and contention deepens. As I walk around, I hear similar themes of opposition to the updating of Water Valley, of disregard for the needs of longtime residents. A number ask why newcomers say they want small town life, then try to change it into something it isn’t.

This is a big mountain for a little town to stub its toe on. I see people in both camps set their jaws and dig in their heels. And Water Valley is not alone in its conflict over what is good for a community.

Small towns across America face their own version of revitalization. Affordable housing becomes scarce; art galleries and boutique breweries appear as a common stepping off point for change, a draw to bring business to once sleepy towns interested in neither.

People ask what is so bad about being a sleepy little town where everyone has been together since birth, where familiar social networks take care of neighbors, where all drivers know to pull off the road out of respect when a funeral passes by. Why can’t we stay as we are?

Because change comes to all things, without renewal towns fade away. Yalobusha County is 25 percent government- owned forests and lakes pre-empting needed revenue from property and sales taxes. For every dollar collected from Mississippi in federal taxes, three come back in assistance programs making it one of the two most dependent states in the country. And that just keeps Mississippi near the bottom of the barrel in education funding and the poorest state in household income.  

In my short tenure in Water Valley, I have voted in seven local elections with 19 different candidates. The city clearly does not lack people interested in stepping up to govern and many platforms included a campaign promise to bring industry with its much needed jobs to town.

These politicians face difficult odds. American economic growth flows into densely populated urban areas with an available trained workforce. As U.S. rural population has declined to its current 20 percent, small places like Water Valley show the wear and tear of an economy that has shifted away from rural people.

Last summer I gathered my supper from two gardens planted in an open field next to the house. One garden will lay fallow this year, the other reduced to half its size. Eddie Peacock now commutes to Grenada to build a sawmill, leaving no spare time to tend a vegetable patch. Beau Kimes will be welding in Clinton, returning only on the weekends. And that is not enough hours to keep the weeds down in a big garden.

Barely noticeable change moves through Water Valley. An old pecan tree in my front yard has lost its grace, branches sliced away to make room for power lines to bring lights to the new houses on the corner.

While the garden next door reflects the lack of nearby jobs, bedroom production here for young professors and graduate students reflects the spreading growth of Oxford fueled by the economic engine of Ole Miss.

As the development pressures push harder against Water Valley, fumes of contention will likely rise higher above the magnolia and once majestic pecan trees.

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