CREATE President Mike Clayborne speaks during A Community Conversation at Trotter Convention Center Monday evening. The community forum drew 200 participants and addressed issues like poverty, education and population loss. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
March 6, 2018 11:18:46 AM
When it came to the key issues facing Lowndes County, there seemed to be a consensus among the 200 community stakeholders gathered Monday at Trotter Convention Center.
Education, poverty and population loss dominated the discussions at the Lowndes County Community Forum -- sponsored by the Lowndes Community Foundation and its parent organization, CREATE Foundation of Northeast Mississippi.
It was the first such event since Lowndes Community Foundation became affiliated with CREATE, which coordinates community engagement efforts in 17 counties, including the entire Golden Triangle. CREATE President Mike Clayborne said the foundation has organized forums in 10 other counties over the last decade so community leaders could identify issues and begin working together to find solutions.
"The point is giving people an opportunity to express themselves and identify those things that we couldn't have predicted," he said.
Attendees identified the top five issues as education proficiency, community engagement, poverty, leadership and crime, after CREATE volunteers tallied votes by attendees.
Clayborne said in the communities where the forums have had the most success, such as Corinth and Alcorn County, the attendees have followed up by forming task forces to address specific issues with officials in the community.
'The elephant in the room'
CREATE's Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield began the forum by presenting data of how Lowndes County compared with Mississippi and the United States on a variety of issues from educational attainment levels to income. While Lowndes County had slightly higher median incomes and educational attainment than the rest of the state, Whitfield pointed to a higher-than-average poverty level (21.2 percent compared to the state's 20.8 percent) and the Columbus Municipal School District's D rating and low performances in state testing as issues that should stand out. Poverty and education, Whitfield said, were issues that needed to be tackled first.
He also highlighted what he believed to be the main assets Lowndes County has -- including Columbus Air Force Base, industrial development, downtown revitalization and historic homes, transportation benefits like good highways and Golden Triangle Regional Airport, health care resources and nearby colleges like Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi State University and East Mississippi Community College.
Though he suggested Lowndes County tackle education and poverty in particular, he stressed the need to focus on the community's strengths.
He also addressed what he called the "elephant in the room" -- an overall declining population.
"In 2000, Columbus was at 26,000 (people)," Whitfield told his audience. "It's at 24,500 in 2016. It lost 1,491 people during that 16-year-stretch."
In the last six years, Lowndes County's population has declined by 0.3 percent, Whitfield said. While nine other counties CREATE works with also lost population, Whitfield said, Northeast Mississippi grew as a whole by 1.7 percent. He added other large counties with universities, such as Fayette and Oktibbeha, gained population.
Meanwhile, Lowndes County's numbers have stayed more or less stagnant since 1990, he said, but have declined significantly since 1960.
"I listed all those assets," Whitfield said. "Education, transportation, houses, downtown. Why are people leaving here? I can't answer that. (The community's) got to answer that."
But the issue that seemed to dominate the minds of stakeholders was education.
Following Whitfield's presentation, the audience broke into six groups to identify and discuss issues. Education was on the forefront of Columbus resident Lynn Brown's mind.
"I didn't realize our education was as bad as it is now," said Brown, who left Columbus in 2006 and just moved back last summer to lead the Columbus Arts Council. "I went to Columbus High (School), graduated in '98. Just knowing the condition it's in now versus what it was when I went to school, it's quite shocking. Because 1998 doesn't seem like that long ago, but considering what my school looks like now, I'm kind of shocked how it got to this point. ... How this was allowed?"
She called education the "hot topic" for her group.
"And I'm going to guess that it was probably the hot topic for every group, considering how education seems to be the root to a lot of things that can be rectified in town," she added.
It was the hot topic in the group of Adam Grubbs, another attendee. Grubbs lives in Starkville and works in Columbus.
"Education was the overriding issue, most important issue to (my group)," he said. "I think poverty as well as unified local government, (and) crime were issues that were also important to our group."
The audience eventually chose education proficiency as the top issue most affecting the county.
"I'm hoping that our town will follow suit of Corinth and Alcorn and continue what they started tonight and actually try to fix ... the problems systemically, and not just put a Band-Aid over it," Brown said.
Grubbs said that while forum attendees didn't necessarily settle on solutions, he though it was a good sign the community was coming together to identify the root of Lowndes County's problems.
"It seems to me that the community's on the same page and everybody is obviously driving in the right direction by having this forum here," he said. "My big takeaway is that everybody wants to see Columbus heading in a positive direction."
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