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VOL. 125 | NO. 16 | Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ripley Hitches Its Wagon To Surrounding Counties’ Growth Efforts

RICHARD THOMPSON | Special to The Daily News

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On a recent winter day, more construction workers could be seen on Ripley’s Court Square than patrons, but local officials say they believe that will change soon. -- Photo: Richard Thompson

RIPLEY, Tenn. – If this city in Northwest Tennessee wilted away on a vine, its demise would not be difficult to understand.

Few small cities and towns can survive the population stagnancy and jobs erosion that have beset Ripley. Fifty miles north of Memphis off U.S. 51 and the seat of Lauderdale County, Ripley has the state’s highest unemployment rate – 18.6 percent.

“Ripley has been in a recession for eight to 10 years,” said Perry Williams, executive director of the Ripley Downtown Development Corp., a nonprofit organization whose goal is to grow the city of 7,600 people to be as vibrant and healthy as its famous red tomatoes.

One growth plan involves the revitalization of Ripley’s historic Court Square.

The square, bounded by West Jackson Avenue and the streets of South Washington, North Jefferson and North Main, has been under reconstruction since 2008, though the seeds for the project were planted nearly 10 years ago.

A long slumber

Ripley is one of six Tennessee cities in counties with populations of fewer than 120,000 people selected to receive funding under the Courthouse Square Revitalization (CRZ) Pilot Project Act of 2005, sponsored by its native son, state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. Bolivar, Winchester, Livingston, Dayton and Loudon were the other CRZ pilot cities.

The idea of a revitalized downtown is key to attracting industry because it focuses on improving the quality-of-life amenities that are more likely to lure much-needed jobs to towns and small cities.

“In time, we may get industry to come back to Downtown Ripley,” Williams said.

The city received $2.3 million from the state to start the work, according to the RDDC. It also received a $2.95 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation for streets and sidewalks and a $35,000 Rural Development Grant.

“If one (county) gets jobs, it will flow over to the other (counties).”

 – State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

The city since has floated a bond based on the recurring revenues from the grants, which allowed much of the Court Square renovation to start at once, Fitzhugh said.

Now nearly finished, Court Square is the spitting image of the artist’s rendering by Askew, Hargraves, Harcourt & Associates, the Memphis architectural firm hired to oversee the project.

The sidewalks are more pedestrian-friendly and music flows through the square via a sound system. The aged storefronts have been updated with new windows, compliments of Marvin Windows, which has a door manufacturing plant in Ripley.

Even the Lauderdale County Courthouse has an art-deco feel to it. What used to be a bank drive-through has been transformed into a farmer’s market. (To see the square before its transformation, outdated photos are still available through the Google Maps street-view feature.)

“I’m just blown away by it,” Fitzhugh said of the renovations.

Gazing ahead

But whether the project will succeed in bringing jobs to the town remains to be seen.

Ripley’s pilot project is expected to culminate in 2023.

Right now, like much of Lauderdale County, Ripley, whose population has fallen slightly (by just more than 200 people) since 2000, needs jobs more than ever.

A year ago, Ripley was dealt another blow when Tennessee Electroplating Inc., an automotive supplier, closed, leaving more than 500 people unemployed. At one time in the plant’s long history, Williams and Lauderdale County Mayor Rod Schuh worked there.

While those jobs are gone, Fitzhugh, Williams and others have said they believe Ripley and other small cities do themselves a favor by focusing on the quality-of-life reasons that are luring more industries to the South.

“One of my philosophies is that you take what you have and make it better,” said Youlanda Jones, director of the University of Tennessee-Martin Ripley Center in Ripley.

To that end, Ripley is focusing on better educating its work force.

UT-Martin’s Ripley Center, which opened in 2007, has more than 300 students, which has exceeded expectations. The center occupies half of a small strip mall; the other half will be a fitness center, said Williams, reiterating the focus on amenities.

Catching up with the times

Williams said the development plan for Ripley also includes streetscaping down Washington Street from the square to the Ripley Center. There are also plans for more walking trails so residents won’t have to drive all the way to Memphis or Jackson, he said.

All of it ties back into the larger goal of job creation.

The county has developed a regional economic development coalition with Haywood and Tipton counties called HTL Advantage.

“We’re pulling all of our assets together,” said Schuh, an HTL board member.

One of the group’s biggest assets is a 4,000-acre megasite off Interstate 40 in Haywood County, where HTL, the state and the Tennessee Valley Authority are trying to attract large industry.

“If one (county) gets jobs, it will flow over to the other (counties),” Fitzhugh said.

So amenities like the renovated Court Square in Ripley help.

“If you see a downtown that is vibrant, it gives you a good first impression,” said Fitzhugh. “This is a paradigm change in how we look at jobs in small towns.”

Richard Thompson may be reached at richardthomps@gmail.com.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 110 110 19,224
MORTGAGES 125 125 22,175
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 51 51 2,887
BUILDING PERMITS 116 116 39,432
BANKRUPTCIES 62 62 12,310
BUSINESS LICENSES 21 21 6,287
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 7,272
MARRIAGE LICENSES 35 35 4,396