Monday, September 11, 2006

What One Person Can Do

Tupelo, MS (population 34,211) is a story that I use in every Boomtown talk. I tell about how George McLean, the owner of the local newspaper, was one of the first people in the country to take a regional approach to economic development. And, he started it all with a bull! You ought to see what it is today!

I was in Tupelo on Friday for a talk and tour. It is days like this that I pinch myself….it is hard to believe that I get to travel around the country touring towns like Tupelo. I’ll be talking about Tupelo all of this week and could go on with many more stories.

After George McLean revolutionized the dairy industry in northern Mississippi with his bulls, he gathered 150 people together to start the Community Development Foundation (CDF) with $25,000 in donations. The organization continues today with a staff of 20 and an annual budget of $4 million. David Rumbarger, only the third CEO in the organization’s history, was my tour guide for the event filled day.

David told me, “I was preceded by Harry Martin who ran CDF for 43 years. He was an agricultural extension agent when he was hired to run the organization. I’ve now been here for six years and came looking for a great family setting for my wife and two children. Tupelo has it all!”

David explained to me how George McLean got started getting his word out about the need for economic development in the Tupelo region, “He would rent recent movies and go out with his projector into some of the rural towns on Saturday night. He would give a 20 minute talk before he would show the movie. He also had a tote board in each town to show them how they compared to other towns in the region. He had them cooperating as a region but also competing with each other to try to do better. He charged them two bits to watch the movie.”

One of McLean’s best moves was a trip that he and five other businesspeople made to Chicago to try to talk Morris Futorian, an innovative furniture manufacturer to look at Tupelo for a new concept he was working on. Prior to Futorian’s innovation of mass producing furniture like Henry Ford did with autos, furniture was made piece by piece. Futorian’s Stratford Industries was convinced that Tupelo had potential and opened a plant in neighboring New Albany, MS, which had better logistical characteristics at the time. McLean didn’t care that the plant was going to a neighboring town…remember he was focused upon the region!

That single plant soon grew into a number of Stratford plants in the region. More importantly it clustered an industry in the Tupelo region. At least 12 major furniture companies trace their roots to that New Albany plant and today “26% of our total jobs are in the furniture industry with 35% of all of our manufacturing jobs in it.” Rumbarger showed me over 20 major plants in the town that are there because of that long train ride to Chicago by George McLean. Today, Tupelo is the furniture capital of the south.

What decision that you make today could have the impact on your town or region that George McLean’s did over 50 years ago?

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