Mayor, board hear advice on residential growth

Published 7:35 am Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Batesville Mayor Hal Ferrell and the city board held a marathon special meeting last week, listening to advice for both long and short-range plans to solve a glaring problem local leaders must address to maintain the viability of the city in years and decades to come.

“My main concern for Batesville at this point is our population, and the lack of growth we are seeing,” Ferrell told board members. 

“Our industrial growth is phenomenal, but our population is decreasing according to what the census numbers tell us. It’s not just Batesville, but all of Panola County as well,” he said, referencing recently released data showing the county lost about 1,500 hundred residents and the population of Batesville slipped slightly to 7,222 since the 2010 counts were taken.

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Frustrating to Ferrell and other civic leaders is the fact that Batesville is a bustling city during work days, easily doubling in size with people coming to work and shop, and retail sales tax collections have never been higher. 

Crime rates are not high for the region and South Panola schools have a solid standing with the state Department of Education with higher than average test scores and graduation rates. The costs of taxes and utilities have increased considerably in the past 10 years, but remain in line with municipalities of comparable size in the Southeast. Yet, housing increases remain stagnant in Batesville.

“This is the problem that needs our focus and attention,” Ferrell told aldermen before welcoming city and community project planner Bob Barber of Hernando to address the board. Barber, a native of Panola County, has been involved with planning and development efforts for both the county and city for years, and has advised the Land Use and Development Commission and the Batesville board on a variety of issues in the past.

Barber said he has believed for years that Batesville and Panola County are poised for great growth, and thinks taking some actions now will pay population dividends in the future.

“So many things have come up in Panola County that are of great potential and we can’t seem to get them over the hump,” he said. “I think the mayor and board members are on the right track addressing these issues.”

On population, Barber was blunt with the board.

“To build population growth in Batesville, you must build quality of life, it’s imperative,” he said. “It’s concentrating on quality of place, that means dealing with amenities for the community such as walkability, green ways, connecting parks. It means building the absolute best park system you can.”

“It does not mean sprawling stuff that is everywhere,” Barber said. “When you get industry and job people will tend to locate where there is quality of life and amenity. That is a long range thing, and a slow incremental process where you build quality of life.”

“When economic development people look at a community they are not just looking at how cheap land is and how they get away with building a quick metal building to get something up, they are looking for longtime investment in quality,” he said. “The question is how can Batesville with all its tremendous assets take advantage of these concepts and grow its population.”

The planner reminded board members he held similar talks with them in September of last year, and  while aldermen were in agreement that changes needed to be made in the direction of city growth, no concrete steps had been taken.

Barber said his notes from the 2020 meeting indicated the board was most concerned with measures that would set minimum home sizes, and address site and building design standards according to where a property is located and how it is zoned in the city.

Aldermen agreed that much of the long range zoning and planning decisions should be made after the outcome of the city’s current annexation effort is known. A comprehensive rewrite of the current zoning guidelines could be completed when the new boundaries are incorporated.

Also important is an active and aggressive Main Street Program. Besides advocating for locally owned businesses, Barber said the most successful Main Street groups are using park and recreation mobility approaches to increase livability opportunities.

“Most of the programs we are working with lately all have the beginnings of some sort of trail system that connects their green spaces and parks and recreation areas so people aren’t in their cars driving all over the place,” he said. “It’s just the direction we are moving now and you have to be aware of that when you are making these big decisions.”

“When you see a place where the population is declining, those people are going to places they want to be, they aren’t leaving because you are forcing them out,” Barber said. “The question becomes, how do I make Batesville a place where people want to be? “

Barber will be asked to speak to the board again, and perhaps contracted to hold public meetings and gather citizen input as city leaders move to tackle the population growth dilemma.