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Oxford future lies in smart start-ups

What will Oxford become?

The question seems almost silly since the answer seems so obvious today.

We are a small-but-growing university community that runs largely on football, real estate, healthcare, education, food and alcohol consumption and retail.

It can feel, at times, a bit like a popular beach destination, but our ocean is the university and our white sandy beaches are the sporting events that keep people coming back seasonally.

But as one of the fastest growing cities in the South, with an 18 percent increase in full-time residents since 2010, Oxford is morphing before our eyes into something that few could have imagined three decades ago.

City and county officials are smart to have been digging deeply into long-range planning, and such moves will have a positive impact on how the community shapes and grows from here.

The larger challenges from a planning standpoint seem clear: maintaining Oxford’s quaint culture, regulating the county’s development so that it happens in a larger blueprint, making sure the pieces fit together to form community not sprawl, and keeping old-Oxford neighborhoods from turning into large dormitories for college students.

Guidance and enforcement will be the biggest challenge from a planning perspective once the blueprint is in place. But the future of Oxford rests upon more than a planning guide.

There’s also the business equation, and specifically, how and what we market ourselves as to the world. Decades ago we began the tourism play, encouraging people to visit Oxford.

Well, that worked.

And, it will continue. But we need to aggressively position Oxford as more than just a good place to visit.

The city was founded as a one-horse town — a university town — but double-digit growth means economic diversity that plays well upon Ole Miss’ assets is a natural.  That’s why the intelligent startup environment makes so much sense as the big bet for the community in the future.

Our quality of life, including short commute times, good public schools and a thriving arts community, combined with deep university resources, make Oxford arguably the best smart startup environment in the county.

Consider FNC, the smart startup from founders including Ole Miss professors Bill Rayburn and Dennis Tosh that solved problems in the mortgage industry by building a technology company in Oxford from the ground up.

FNC spawned jobs, wealth and opportunity in Oxford in recent years unlike anything other than the university and hospital. That’s also why some popular, fast-growth university cities like Austin, Texas have embraced technology start-ups and made it a part of the storyline.

Current efforts within the community like the Economic Development Foundation and Ole Miss’ Insight Park already encourage entrepreneurial activity. And they are notable. Quite. It just takes time to build such a powerful new brand and direction that’s heard around the country, of course.

But if one travels the United States and asks about the most innovative university communities for one to set up a hip, smart startup, the answers are typically Bozeman (Montana), Austin (Texas), or Boulder (Colorado).

Not Oxford.

Oxford, they will tell you, is a fantastic place to visit.

“It’s so cute,” they will say, “and so much fun.”

We’ve done a good job with that and don’t want the effort to stop, of course.

But, the brightest future for greater Oxford requires completely adding another dimension, one that makes us more than a one-horse town plus tourism for the next 100 years.

It will take full coordination between the city, county and university, and a large-scale, lasting effort. But if Austin, Boulder and Bozeman can brand effectively build and brand as tech-based start-up friendly places, so can we.

David magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. Contact him at david.magee@oxfordeagle.com.