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City leaders say 2009 saw ups and downs

Every 365 days, the new year serves as a stopping point for usto look back and see what we wish we’d done better, and to lookforward and think about how to improve.

It is no different for city leaders, especially after a toughfinancial year like 2009.

Brookhaven Mayor Les Bumgarner said the defining factor of theyear as it passed was the economy.

“Probably the watermark is the recession, because it affectedeverything and everybody,” he said.

Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce ExecutiveVice-President Cliff Brumfield said that there were a fewbusinesses that remained unscathed by the national financialdownturn.

“We had several businesses that actually thrived despite theeconomy, that were able to not only to weather the economic crisisbut to defeat it,” he said. “Sadly we did have a few stores thatowners retired or decided to close and some for good reason, but atthe same time we had several local-owned businesses that have grownto the point that they had to move into larger locations.”

Part of that motion, Brumfield said, is just growing pains.

“This evolution was good for those that opened but also to someof those who chose to close as well,” he said. “People should havegreat confidence in their community, as our numbers of storefrontsin Brookhaven remain strong.”

Bumgarner agreed that the city experienced a lot of ups anddowns during 2009, and some of the downs seem to be tiedtogether.

“The closing of Columbus Lumber was a big turning point,” hesaid. “I think if you were to look back at the sales tax receiptsand when Columbus Lumber closed, you’ll find they parallel moreclosely than we want to see.”

Because the economy is taking so many casualties, bringing innew businesses and organizations and retaining what the city has iseven more integral, the mayor said.

“That’s why it’s so important that we get Rex Lumber in here,”he said. “It’s also important to keep (Mississippi School of theArts).”

But for all the major loss, the citizens and leadership of thecity fought back, Brumfield pointed out. Decision makers in thecity decided they weren’t going to slip quietly into the night andengineered ideas aimed at raising public involvement in the retailsector.

“The chamber’s retail committee came up with several notableprojects such as the Best of Brookhaven, which not only helpedparticipating merchants but helped with local sales tax,” he said.”That, coupled with other shop at home campaigns led by thechamber, the city, and The DAILY LEADER kept the numbers fromfalling farther than they did.”

The key to a bright future for Brookhaven is continuing to usesuch ingenuity to press forward for positive change, Bumgarnersaid. In addition, it’s important to focus on the good things thathave happened and ride their momentum.

“We need to eliminate the negatives that have happened and hopewe don’t have any more,” he said. “What’s going on here is nothingthe economy can’t solve, and that’s not just here. That’s anationwide and global thing, too.”

And Brumfield pointed to other projects that were not directlytied to the city’s financial health that continued to raise spiritsand encourage the populace through a year that national consensusseems to be roundly labeling as dreary. For instance, Brumfieldsaid, Brookhaven continues to lead the state in its efforts towardthe Mississippi Scholars program.

“It became one of the biggest hits of the year with the largestnumber of students ever graduating and a statewide record ofscholarships, and it was a tremendous success, which speaks wellnot only for our volunteers and organizers, but for our localschools and students for taking this project on headfirst,” hesaid.

And downtown beautification also was a big mark in the wincategory, Brumfield said. He cited a period of about 10 days whereseveral old metal facades were stripped from historic downtownbuildings in order to paint and shape up the structure facingbeneath.

“That made for a shockingly updated downtown appearance for manywho came to shop during holiday season,” Brumfield said. “You mightnot notice some of the improvements as being that dramatic when yousee them every day, but for those seeing them for the first time ina while, it’s a great surprise.”

But in the meantime, in spite of the reports that the recessionis over, Bumgarner said there is still belt-tightening to be doneuntil things turn around locally. With budgets city and statewidedown an average of 10 percent, that could be as much as $500,000that needs to be trimmed from budget predictions, the mayorsaid.

“You can’t wait until it happens. You have to do somethingbefore it’s too late,” he said.

But while that is going on, city and county leaders havecontinued to work toward the future with the Industrial DevelopmentFoundation on projects that will eventually be crucial to the lifeof not only Brookhaven and Lincoln County, but also potentially allof southwest Mississippi.

“We made great strides with improvements to Linbrook BusinessPark,” Brumfield said. “With the economy being what it is, this hasbeen a great time for city, the county and the IDF to move forwardwith development of what will be the future of our industrialbase.”

And in spite of the jobs and industry that the business parkwill draw in future years, measures still have to be taken for thepresent, Bumgarner said.

Among those is a hiring freeze that has been put into effectsince the new budget took effect in October. Even though there arespots to be filled on some city department rosters, things are onhold until budgetary needs are more clear.

“I’m probably the only mayor in the history of mayors thatdidn’t come in and make a bunch of hires, but we can’t add topayroll right now,” he said. “We’ve got to do everything we can tokeep what we’ve got.”

City officials have said that if sales tax, which has not beenanywhere near the $415,000 budgeted per month this year, doesn’tpick up, the city could be forced to make even more employeecuts.

“Over the next two months or so we should know what kind ofadjustments we’re going to need to make,” he said.

But Brumfield said there seems to be a light at the end of thetunnel.

“We feel the sales tax will return and fully recover from therecession, because our retailers reported strong sales in Novemberand December, and as the nation does better and people’s confidencereturns, people will begin to open their wallets more and buy more,which will help with sales tax collections,” he said.

So much of that rides locally on Brookhaven’s auto industry,which is the lifeblood of the city’s retail market. Brumfield saidabout a third of the city’s sales tax dollars come from revenuegenerated by car dealers in a healthy economy. For that reason,loyalty to home and community should come into play when residentsof Brookhaven make major purchases.

“That is why it’s absolutely imperative that the sticker on theback of your car be that of a local dealership and not one from outof town,” he said. “When you do buy your car somewhere else, you’veinvested in someone else’s community other than their own.”

And if people will remember that local dollars feed localmouths, there’s no reason to panic just yet, Bumgarner said.Brookhaven still stayed in the top 25 cities in the state for salestax revenue every month in 2009, which points to the fact thatthings could be much worse.

“I feel like 2009 was good, but 2010 is going to be a lotbetter,” he said.