By Austin Barbour
All of us are biased about “our generation” and “our childhood”, and candidly, I’m no different. From the time I was 10 years old (‘85) and free to roam the streets on my bike, until I graduated high school (‘94) and headed to Ole Miss, Yazoo City, Mississippi was as good as it got in my book. For me, it was a great place to grow up during a time that seemed like the best decade of the century. Even today, my friends and I love telling stories about the people we grew up with or the times we had in our childhood hometown, even though nearly all of us are raising our kids in other towns. The decision we made to move away from our hometown wasn’t the rule, but we weren’t the exception of our generation either.
As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve thought a lot about the future of small towns in Mississippi—especially those in the area of the state I think of as home, the Delta. I’ve talked to politicians, business leaders, community leaders, economic developers and even my wife and kids about why some small towns in our state are not destinations for young Mississippians. All of these conversations lead to a commonsense conclusion, which is young people in their twenties and early thirties are generally looking for two main things: a good job with a real future and friends/family to enjoy this part of their life with.
If you believe the up-and-coming generation is focused on these two ideals (good job + friends/family), we must then determine how best to position our small towns for those two important variables of growth. First, we must understand the current situation—the entire region is struggling to hold onto a generation of hometown kids. The 2020 Census estimates show every Delta county is on track to have double digit loss in population except for two (Issaquena losing 5 percent and Yazoo reversing the trend with a gain of 6 percent). Second, we need to understand we don’t have to travel to Huntsville or Nashville to see positive economic and population growth because there are counties in our own state we can learn from. Rural counties such as Union, Pontotoc, Stone, Jones and Lamar are all on track to gain population. Larger, more urban counties such as Madison, DeSoto, Rankin and Harrison are slated to have double digit population growth. Our university communities (Oxford, Starkville and Hattiesburg) are all driving population numbers in the right direction in their counties.
New Albany, Ocean Springs, Laurel, Canton and many other cities have figured out how to grow their towns, and I’m confident their city officials will share their formulas with their neighbors in the Delta. Greenwood and Cleveland don’t have to try and compete against Atlanta and Dallas, but they have to compete against Corinth and Oxford. We need this type of healthy competition—it’s good for our small towns and our great for our state. The more small towns we have in Mississippi that are desirable, the better it is for all of us. Not everyone wants to live in a big city. Many want to live close to the country, to raise their kids in rural America, or simply want a lower cost of living. Mississippi can satisfy all three of those wants and desires.
Covid has taught us that working in a high-rise in Houston or flying through Charlotte three times a week isn’t a necessity anymore. It’s not just the mega companies that are changing how they operate, smaller companies are also realizing video conferencing and other 21st century tools allow them to continue to serve their customers while granting their employees more freedom to work remotely. State officials and the private sector know this, and they are hyper focused on increasing broadband access—a must for growth in the Delta (and all of rural MS).
As we enter the 2020s and then the 2030s, the next generation of Fred Carl, Morgan Freeman and Leslie Lampton—dynamic creative and business leaders—will have unlimited freedom when deciding where to start their new venture. In the days, months and years to come, it must be a priority for our state leaders to encourage and empower our local leaders to be bold in their thinking so they can attract this new generation of entrepreneurs and creative minds. Boldness will allow local leaders to create an attractive vision and plan for their community—tapping into their strengths and chipping away at their weaknesses.
Delta towns have defined Mississippi for generations, and I’m confident they have the capacity to positively define our state for future generations as well.
Austin Barbour is a Managing Partner of The Clearwater Group.