Oxford experiencing a growth explosion

By Angela Rogalski

Photography By Austin Britt

Oxford has many things to celebrate when it comes to its past, present and future; not the least of which is the pride and joy residents feel about Ole Miss, the university where the favorite saying is UM Alum, Larry Wamble’s , “we may not win every game…but we ain’t never lost a party!” Between the beautiful Grove, where some of the best tailgating in the world happens, to the gorgeous campus that was named the nation’s most beautiful campus by USA Today’s Reader’s Choice travel awards contest in 2016; Ole Miss is the main aorta that supplies the heartbeat to the city, and offers residents and visitors alike a reason to still believe in grace, charm and class (no pun intended).

Add to the mix that one of the greatest writers of all time lived in Oxford, namely William Cuthbert Faulkner, and you get bragging rights the likes of which many towns don’t have. Oxford is both traditional and cutting edge; it moves with the grace and charm of a mint julep being poured on the veranda in the summertime, and with the frenetic energy that cities twice its size have when Ole Miss is running full-steam ahead. It’s where baby boomers long to retire (and many have), and it’s where millennials who have graduated come back to relive some of the best memories of their lives.

Oxford. It’s also experiencing a growth explosion that surpasses even the forefather’s dreams.

Mary Allyn Hedges is director of Visit Oxford, the marketing and tourism entity of the city that keeps its finger on the pulse of everything that is Oxford. Hedges says that the exponential growth that the city has seen is remarkable.

“We worked with Berkeley Young and just completed a travel market research study that compared our initial study, which was done in 2012, to the latest one conducted in 2016, and we received some really great economic impact numbers from the latter, which shows the exceptional growth that we’ve seen since 2015. Travelers to Oxford spent nearly $153.6 million in Oxford/Lafayette County, an increase of 13.9 percent from the year prior. And households in Lafayette County saw a tax relief of $761.85 each because of traveler spending in Oxford last year, up 9.6 percent from the year before. The state and local taxes/fees attributed to travel and tourism equal $13.2 million, which is up from $11.5 million in fiscal year 2015. So, it has been phenomenal.”

Hedges says that with the addition of several new hotels that have opened, the city now has over 1,000 hotel rooms, adding significantly to the job increase of the city.

“There were 2,000 jobs in Oxford/Lafayette County that were directly related to the travel and tourism industry, which is up 200 jobs from the year prior. And based on new hotel construction, renovation of current hotels, restaurants and retail stores, tourism capital investments made in Oxford/Lafayette County equaled $21.9 million in 2016, up nearly $5.2 million in 2015. And both the Hotel/Motel and the Food & Beverage tax revenues were up significantly from the year before. Hotel/Motel coming in at 44 percent and Food & Beverage up 14 percent. It was a great year for Oxford and it’s only going to get better.”

Hedges adds that with Ole Miss; the Square; the great culinary scene that the city offers; football season in the fall; Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak; the great nightlife that thrives in the city; Thacker Mountain Radio, and Square Books; Oxford receives quite a bit of recognition. And for a town of 20,000, it’s definitely the quintessential small town, but with a thriving and diverse canvas. And with the upcoming Mississippi Bicentennial, and Oxford being selected as one of three communites to host a Bicentennial celebration beginning in June, Hedges says they are very excited to have been chosen to host for the northern part of the state.

“The first was held in April on the Gulf Coast and we’re hosting the second one for the northern portion of the state. And the last one will be happening in Jackson in December. But we’re very happy and excited to be hosting the second event.”

Tom Howorth of Howorth & Associates Architects is an Oxford native and moved back 22 years ago. Along with himself, he also moved his firm to the city; something he says he would have been unable to do without the perception of growth that he saw happening even then.

“There is a very brisk pace of growth that we’ve seen over the past 20 or so years. Then the Recession of 2008, which persisted here for about four years before it started breaking loose, really shut things down. We were going gangbusters in 2005/2006, at a pace that almost rivaled what we’re seeing today. Some people called it “The Eli Effect,” which was a time when Eli Manning was quarterback at Ole Miss and the team was doing very well, and that coincided with a lot of Oxford’s growth and development. I think it was more of a coincidence of timing than it was a causal relationship. I wouldn’t call it “The Eli Effect.” I might call it “The Eli Coincidence.” I do believe there was some correlation between the success of the football team at that time and the city’s growth; I just don’t think it was a causal correlation.”

Howorth says the main factor for growth then was the Baby Boomer generation and their desire to return and retire to Oxford.

“When the Baby Boomers finished college at Ole Miss, they largely went to other places to make a living: New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas; places such as that. And it’s almost formulaic when one starts to look at retiring; one looks to go to a place where life is easier and the cost of living is less. And Oxford looked pretty attractive to Baby Boomers, and when they were looking at the towns they may have grown up in, they were less attractive than the town where they went to college and had good memories. So they came back here. And a lot of them weren’t fully retired, so there was still economic activity happening as well.”

Today, now that the economy has reheated, Howorth adds there is that much more development pressure in Oxford.

“Because Oxford is the most attractive community in our state. And I would argue, on a regional basis, that you could go into Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas or Louisiana, and not find communities that rival Oxford, in terms of their attractiveness. So, a lot of people are looking to  grow here and invest here. And of course, there’s the University’s growth. A huge amount of what we see in construction activity has to do with the student housing market. And that’s because the University cannot build fast enough to accommodate the student growth that they’re seeing. And Ole Miss has become a much more attractive school for out-of-state students. Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen more and more growth there. Ole Miss is a great university; it has very favorable tuition rates for students from out-of-state, compared to some’s own in-state tuition costs.”

Howorth adds that over time, he’s also seen the summer months, when a large volume of students have gone home, become more and more active.

“As I’ve seen things evolve over time, it used to be in the summer Oxford was quite a dead place. Locals could breathe easier because you could get across town in three minutes, instead of our rush hour, which is actually more of a rush-twenty minutes. We still have small-town problems, not big-city problems. But the university, as most have done, are trying to make more efficient use of its facilities by changing the calendar in order to extend it into more of a 12-month calendar, with all of the intercession classes in the winter and summer months. So, you have more and more students who are going to school closer to 12 months than the conventional nine months, two-semester academic year.  So, Oxford’s quiet periods have gotten shorter.”

Howorth believes that one of Oxford’s most unique attributes is its equal combination of students and residents.

“There are a few other college towns that are similar, but none that have exactly the same ratio. Growing up in Oxford and being here all of these years, the population of the city and the enrollment of the University have been about the same for my entire life. So, when there were 5,000 people in Oxford, there were 5,000 students enrolled in Ole Miss. Now that’s about 20/20. 20,000 and 20,000. I like to describe Oxford as being half-like Camelot, half of the population never ages. And that creates a very interesting dynamic in the economy and the culture. But one of the things that has really changed, is the in the past when people finished college, they had to leave to find jobs. That’s no longer the case. People in their 20s and 30s are now finding opportunities to stay in Oxford, and the changes in technology internationally are making it easier to work wherever you are. And all of those things make Oxford a very interesting and attractive place.”

J.W. McCurdy and Chad Russom co-own MR (McCurdy/Russom) Construction in Oxford. McCurdy says that from a builder’s perspective, Oxford is definitely booming.

“We do residential building currently and rental property for ourselves and other people. And our business has increased exponentially every year since we started, which was in 2008.”

McCurdy believes that the growth in the construction business, as far as his own, is due to Oxford’s own personality and attractiveness.

“I think Oxford is a place where many people want to live,” he says. “We sell a lot of houses to people moving here from different parts of the state, and who tell us that they love Oxford and this is where they want to put down roots. And I think the reason many people want to live here is a culmination of everything that Oxford is: the Square, the University; just everything. And I also think the leaders of our community do a good job of making the many facets of Oxford cohesive; where everything complements itself.”

And McCurdy’s take on summertime in Oxford reflects Howorth’s sentiments to a T.

“In my opinion, Oxford in the summer isn’t as calm as it used to be. On weekends, I see the Square still crowded and there are lots of people in town, and I tell everyone this is the “New Oxford.” I’ve always called Oxford “Mayberry.” And everybody wants to come to “Mayberry.” And the good thing is Oxford still has a lot of room to grow.”

McCurdy adds that Oxford’s culinary talent and focus is another big draw for the city.

“There are so many great places to eat here. And the University bringing in many people affords our restaurants the ability to showcase their great food and to successfully stay open.”

And McCurdy says if he could pick anyplace in the country to open a business, Oxford is and would always be his choice.

“I think Oxford is the greatest place on earth. I don’t envision myself living or working anywhere else.”

Jon Maynard is president and CEO of both the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce. Maynard makes it a point to keep up with the numbers when it comes to the growth of Oxford and sees the positive direction.

“I track the numbers for every county, going back to 1990; population trends; employment trends; manufacturing employment trends; student population trends; average annual wage; you name it. I plugged all of this public data into a spreadsheet and what I found amazing was the rate of growth in Lafayette County. Since 2010, we are the fastest growing county in Mississippi, in terms of rate. As far as the actual growth itself, numbers-wise, since 2010 we are actually fourth in the state behind DeSoto, Madison and Lamar. So, we’re doing very, very well in both numbers and rate.”

Maynard adds that the secret to Oxford’s success is that while many economic development organizations and mindsets are to go out and land big manufacturers and do everything they can to offer incentives and the best deals for those companies’ bottom lines, which is great, but when that bottom line changes, they may pack up and go somewhere else

“But we have focused very heavily on recruiting people; recruiting individuals to our town. And people will work where they want to live. And so we have a community of people here that are very proud of living in Oxford. Some chambers of commerce would be very hesitant about working with tree boards, or other things that are traditionally viewed as “limiting for businesses,” but we welcome it and we thrive on it. That has created the difference.

“The fact that we take pride in our community and we have high expectations for everyone coming to our community, has made the difference in how we have grown or changed over the years. We also believe that growth from the inside-out is the key to true growth and makes it sustainable. As we take companies that have started here and have grown here, we really want to make sure that those companies, even if they’re sold to an outside entity, that those companies stay here. And the entities that started the company originally also go back into business to start more. Take FNC for example, Bill Rayburn sold that company last year for almost half a billion dollars, and he is now back creating a new company. Really, our focus on the quality of the place and the growth from the inside-out makes all the difference in the world as to whether we will be able to do this for the next 50 to 100  years.”