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Oxonians discuss city growth, other issues at Huffington Post’s ‘Listen to America’ forum

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill, left, is interview by Curtis Wilkie as part of the Huffington Post’s Listen to America Tour in Oxford, Miss. on Friday, September 15, 2017.

During their tour through 25 different states, the Huffington Post brought their “Listen to America” tour to Oxford this past week. As part of their daylong stay in town, the events culminated in a conversation between Mayor Robyn Tannehill and renowned journalist Curtis Wilkie at Off-Square Books.

Wilkie asked Tannehill about Oxford’s achievements, issues plaguing it and the future of the town.

The conversation opened with Wilkie asking Tannehill if party politics ever play into Oxford’s political decisions.

“Oxford is a different place and we really have very little party politics in play, which is why I think things work here,” Tannehill responded. “Democrats and Republicans pick up trash the same way and pave roads the same way. We all have in this small town a lot more things in common than things that divide us. Our board is made up of some Republicans and some Democrats. All of our discussions, even when we don’t agree on things, is not partisan issues.”

In terms of relations between the university and the rest of the town, Tannehill said the two “complement each other well.”

“I don’t think either would exist in their current state without the other,” she said. “I think we have common goals and we work together well. I do believe that we’re in as good a place as we’ve ever been relationship-wise both with our county, university and city.”

The topic of the state flag and monuments and how the city should go about handling them was raised by Wilkie. Tannehill noted that two-and-a-half years ago, the board unanimously decided to take the flag down on any city property.

“I think it’s time for us to have a flag that unifies us,” Tannehill added. “It’s time for Mississippi to look toward our future. The truth about flags and statues: we can move them, we can leave them, we can change them, we can keep them, but changing any of those things doesn’t change the situation and the tension that exists. We have to change hearts and minds.”

The mayor said that she’d rather see the town “spend less time talking about statues and flags and more time talking about being respectful of how everybody feels.”

Tannehill believes race relations in Oxford are “good,” citing how well the students in the high school interact with each other

“There are relationships there,” she said. “Everybody wants to be together in Oxford. If you go to cocktail parties or things that happen in town, you’ll see that everybody there doesn’t look the same. There are lots of opportunities for getting to know people and forming relationships and bonds.”

One of Oxford’s biggest issues as of late has been its growing pains as the number of people pouring into the town has increased over recent years.

“We’ve got challenges and opportunities,” Tannehill said. “Our infrastructure is not what it needs to be to support this many students and Oxford folks. We’re the most densely populated community in the state. We are 22,000 people trying to build roads which cost $10 million.”

Ron Shapiro, left, is interviewed by Damon Dahlen during the Huffington Post’s Listen to America Tour in Oxford, Miss. on Friday, September 15, 2017.

She said that “several roads and intersections are under construction,” but that the growing population has driven up the cost of housing here “tremendously.”

“Most of our jobs are in the hospitality industry and those are not high-paying jobs,” she said. “The people who are working for the city, quite honestly, a lot of them can’t live here. You can’t build affordable housing on unaffordable land.”

The microphone was then passed to Oxonians in attendance who had questions and concerns.

Lee Habeeb, who lives in town and has a child in the school district, expressed his concern about “exporting (graduates) to other states.”

“We have to do more than restaurants and bookstores,” Habeeb said. “They don’t create great jobs. What are we doing to develop businesses in this state? We have to stop sending our kids to Austin, Charlotte and Dallas.”

Tannehill agreed and said that “admittedly, high-paying jobs are few and far between here.”

“We have had several companies that started from the Oxford Enterprise Center like FNC,” she said. “The university has a new enterprise center as well at Insight Park. There are numerous businesses getting their start there. The Mississippi Development Authority has identified that need across the state. They have provided some funding to Insight Park. We’re moving the ball in the right direction, I’m just not sure we started when we should have started.”

Wilkie called graduates leaving Mississippi, “the greatest problem facing the state.”

One Oxonian, who asked to be unidentified for this article, brought up Colonel Reb as one of many issues in race relations in the community.

“It is (a symbol) that I remember as being prominent growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” she said. “It’s something that if you were to go to the Grove, you’ll see tributes to the Colonel. It’s a lasting legacy as an African-American who grew up in Mississippi and whose family is from Oxford. For me, it’s a very divisive symbol, it’s one of exclusivity and not inclusion. It’s high time that we started initiated conversations and together gain exposure and move ourselves forward. It seems to be persisting in terms of our usage.”

Wilkie referred to Reb as “a generational thing.”

“The Colonel is a dying symbol here at Ole Miss and there are plenty of people who think it’s high time that he be retired,” he said. “It’s insensitive. I think there’s widespread recognition that it’s unacceptable here.”

Tannehill appreciated the concern and said she wants to see Oxford be a town “that we’re all proud of.”

Sam Levine, left, of the Huffington Post interviews Julia Tatum, with her dog Bentley, during the Huffington Post’s Listen to America Tour in Oxford, Miss. on Friday, September 15, 2017.

“I would much rather have a downtown Square that had all dead flowers and boarded up windows than a town that makes someone feel that we are being arrogant and lack compassion,” she said. “I am looking for many ways to have that conversation with people. I think we’d find that we have a lot more in common than what divides us.”

The final question of the night went to longtime Oxonian Ron Shapiro.

“What I fear the most is the fair priced housing,” Shapiro said. “It’s impossible for someone with an idea to start a business. You have to have so much money behind you. It used to be that if you had an idea you’d just work real hard.”

Tannehill understood his concerns and noted how “what brought Oxford to the table was our artist community and creative entrepreneurs.”

“You can’t really have an artist’s district if you don’t have a low-rent district,” she said. “My dream is to lasso the things we own like the Powerhouse, Pavilion and other buildings that we own that can be utilized for the arts. Or for small business incubators for creative businesses. We do have a partnership now with some developers who are going to build 96 affordable houses. Work force housing is how I like to refer to it. So people who work in the restaurants and hotels can afford to live there.”