KNOX ROSS | Guest columnist
Mayor, Pelahatchie, Miss.
Pelahatchie, Miss., a small town of 1,500 located in the Jackson urbanized area, faces a situation that many other small towns on the periphery of the urban growth pattern face: that is, how to leverage limited local financial resources to develop the town in such a way as to make it sustainable and make it a place people want to live. This, in turn, encourages business and personal investment. Each of these topics deserves a separate discussion, and I will start with sustainability.
Sustainability is not a topic at the forefront of development in Mississippi. In fact, federal programs that we rely on for infrastructure investment, such as the Community Development Block Grant Program, encourage greenfield development by subsidizing water and sewer infrastructure into areas that are currently not served. This creates a whole new infrastructure that has to be maintained, while not addressing the needs of the current, aging infrastructure.
Our town developed around the railroad in a compact, walkable manner, before the introduction of the automobile. Through no real plan this compactness has been maintained over the years, mainly due to a low-growth environment. As we engaged and listened to consultants and professionals, we began to understand the wisdom of planning for and encouraging infill development where infrastructure already exists. This leverages the existing system that has been paid for and generates revenue that can be used to improve the existing system rather than servicing debt for expansion. This is not to say that we completely disallow expansion; we have just tailored outzoning and development plans and infrastructure investments to encourage investment in already-developed areas.
This approach is critically important in the current environment of reduced federal and state financial assistance for infrastructure improvements. We are now more reliant on generating revenue locally to maintain and improve infrastructure, rather than the past method of reliance on CDBQ and other programs to subsidize improvements. Two areas in which we have done this are in regular, systematic reviews of our water and sewer rate structure, and pursuing partnerships with private industries for additional value-added services they are willing to pay for, such as specialized waste water treatment. We make sure that we are working toward not only being able to fund current operations, but that we are also building in additional resources to meet future needs as well. This is a multi-year or even a multi-decade process to get the systems to a sustainable level, and it requires an approach of constant, consistent improvement.
A second area of importance is making sure our town is a place people want to live, a place people can be proud of. Many small towns have a “going out of business” look to them. This look is led by the town itself, in the guise of fiscal responsibility and a failure to maintain and update municipal buildings and assets.
We have undertaken a multi-year plan to update and refurbish all the assets the town is responsible for, and we have made public investments in the areas we have determined to be most important to long-term sustainability. Namely, to encourage walkability and infill development, the town has to be doing that as well. This also can help stretch limited resources by keeping all government functions in a centralized location, with a great deal of cross-utilization of assets. It has also encouraged private investment in these areas. As the public sees what the town deems important through the investment of public assets, private investment has followed, generating additional traffic for local business, encouraging new business development and ultimately additional tax revenue for the town.
By encouraging private investment, public dollars are saved and private capital improves existing public infrastructure such as streets, lighting, roadways and other basic needs. This leverages the existing public investment and reduces our dependence on grants and one-time infusions of capital, which, as we all are aware, are becoming more and more rare.
These steps, via proper ongoing zoning and planning, and encouraging development in areas that already have infrastructure and basic development, make it much easier for a town to provide affordable incentives that make sense to existing and new businesses. We have partnered with local banks and our state development agency to provide low cost, fixed rate financing for new construction and rehabilitation. We have partnered with our county to leverage its resources to provide road and street improvements to encourage business development, and we employ our own resources to do jobs ourselves, such as park development and sidewalk reconstruction, on a small and systematic basis. In all areas, we implement the principles of constant, consistent improvement and incrementalism. We find that these principles result in the very best use of our limited resources and show our citizens and visitors an always evolving and improving place that encourages private investment.
In the current financial environment, we can no longer wait for the federal and state governments to fund our dreams and aspirations of a well-functioning, pleasant place to call home. We now have to leverage our own resources in a systematic and incremental fashion, whether it is to rebuild the local sidewalk system or repair broken infrastructure. This approach, which results in increased ownership in and responsibility for our own future, creates stronger towns and better places to live and work.