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John Howell’s Column

Autrey has success during first full year

Batesville mayor Jerry Autrey marked the end of the first full year of his administration with the announcement that the city had received a contract from a restaurant chain offering to purchase an acre of prime, city-owned real estate near the civic center.

The mayor makes no secret that announcements about new commercial or industrial events in the community are among the favorite parts of the job to which city voters elected him in  May, 2005. And, along with other government and economic development officials, he’s had opportunity to make several — GE Aviation, Love’s Travel Stop, Starbucks and Chili’s restaurants recently among them.

Autrey, who had no experience in public office prior to his election, has proved to be a quick study in city government, learning from the Batesville aldermen he faces around the meeting table most Tuesdays, from other elected and appointed officials and from the Mississippi Municipal Association and its contacts.

The mayor often speaks extemporaneously now, having discarded the notes that he relied on during the initial months of his administration. He carries a mental wish list that he often shares as he did recently with the Batesville Exchange Club. Industrial and commercial expansion is on that list. Specifically, he’d like to see spinoff from the Toyota facility near Tupelo land in the former Moog building in the W. M. Harmon Industrial Complex, Autrey said.  He would also like to finally announce that Batesville has been selected as the site for another manufacturer who has for months played this city against two neighboring towns to see who most wants them.

Autrey’s discussion of the latter on Mississippi Supertalk Radio got him in trouble last summer when he went into too much detail about the industrial prospect. Within minutes of the live interview, the mayor had received phone calls from local and state economic developers who told him he had talked too much.

Characteristically, Autrey incorporated the episode into his repertoire of the self-depreciating humor that he regularly shares with his audiences. “Gray Swope was in town the other day,” Autrey told Exchange Club members at their Dec. 5 meeting, referring the the Director of the Mississippi Development Authority. “He told me, ‘we’ve got some things going right now, but we’re not going to tell you about it,’” the mayor continued, laughing with his audience.

Though Autrey lacked experience in government when he took office, he brought with him that sense of humor honed over a lifetime and perhaps inherited from his father, the late F. J. “Jelly” Autrey. It is often displayed in well-timed but unexpected remarks that put strangers at ease and dispel tension in conversations that could grow into confrontations.

Autrey keeps his serious side mostly to himself, quietly revealing his distaste for the down side of the mayor’s office: breaking a 2-2 tie in voting against a friend’s request for a zoning variance, dealing with personnel problems that are inevitable in city government, expressing frustration at the time consumed in an attempt to bring a campaign-promised animal shelter to fruition.

“The word is out to people in Memphis and Clarksdale that we’re out to get them,” Autrey said of the Batesville Police Department’s efforts to cut off the usual sources for illegal drugs bound for Batesville. Batesville police officer Jamie Tedford, who took leave last summer during an unsuccessful campaign for sheriff, “is back; he’s out there working,” Autrey said.

Tedford will also add a second dog to the Batesville force. “He’s purchased one on his own that he is going to train,” Autrey said.

Fire protection in the city consists of strict enforcement of building codes and a full-strength fire department, the mayor continued. “We want to build sleeping quarters and a kitchen in station number two,” he said. “The fire and police (departments) want a weight room; that may be incorporated into station number two,” he added.

Long-range planning has also captured the mayor’s attention. The 2010 plan developed in 1990 “hit on the dot a lot of the problems and showed the growth toward the east,” he said.

His wish list includes more street repaving, lighting at Batesville north exit on Interstate 55 and additional lighting at the south exit, additional water and sewer service on Highway 35 and — he has made clear since early in his administration — another term as mayor when municipal elections again roll around in 2009.