By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
Leadership, innovation and patience are all elements required for economic revival in Del Norte County, said a man who played a role in turning around the fortunes of Tupelo, Miss.
Lewis Whitfield, a Tupelo banker who was involved in the redevelopment of the Mississippi city, was the keynote speaker at Saturday's local "economic summit" in Crescent City.
Whitfield told the crowd of mostly business people that if Tupelo could overcome obstacles to prosperity, so can Del Norte County.
"In Tupelo, we don't have a river, we don't have an ocean, we don't even have fertile soil," Whitfield said. "Not only are we the 50th state in the union (on many economic lists), we don't even have what the rest of our state has."
More than 100 people attended the summit, hosted by the Crescent City-Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce at the city's Cultural Center.
"Who wouldn't care about this area?" Whitfield said of Del Norte County. "It is simply beautiful. You have great potential here."
Aside from being the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Whitfield's hometown has also become synonymous with successful redevelopment.
Tupelo has been cited as an All-American City by the National Civic League three times since its transformation from a depressed backwater to a manufacturing hub. The award is given to only 10 communities each year.
Tuplo began reinventing itself in the late 1940s and continues to evolve today, he said.
According to the local chamber, leaders from 300 communities and 63 nations have travelled to Tupelo to learn the town's story.
Whitfield said there are many techniques that aided Tupelo that can be used in other communities. He said Tupelo was helped along by a union-free environment, a locally-owned newspaper that accentuates positive news reporting, a strong public school system and charity ventures from local business leaders.
Baird Rumiano, co-owner of Rumiano Cheese in Crescent City, said he believes in giving to charity, but that in a depressed area there are more needs than donors.
Whitfield responded that lines do have to be drawn.
"The community needs a plan. Just responding to problems is not good ... I think common sense is the best answer to that," said Whitfield.
Chamber President Mike Sullivan said tourism is the primary driver of Del Norte County's economy but the map is a still somewhat fuzzy and the road to the future is a little rough.
"We need a master plan for economic development," Sullivan said. "We need to know where we're going to be in five years, 10 years, 20 years. As a community we've got to have goals."
Sullivan pointed to tourism and the promotion of tourism as the main target.
"We need to improve our infrastructure in order to support economic development," he said. "We need to finish building out the harbor master plan. We need to increase sewer capacity. We need to expand our airport within the next two years or we face losing commercial service. And we need to widen Highway 199 to better accommodate truck traffic."
Redwood State and National Parks is a huge tourist draw for Del Norte County, Sullivan said. "We have the heart of the redwoods right here," he said. "We need to do a better job of sharing that with the rest of the world."
He also pointed to Trees of Mystery, Ocean World and the Elk Valley Rancheria's casino and its planned destination resort as significant visitor attractions, along with Del Norte's beautiful beaches and rivers.
Whitfield reminded local business leaders that transformation of Tupelo took more than 50 years and said Del Norte County shouldn't expect to see results overnight.
"I'm not describing Utopia or Pleasantville," Whitfield said. "It's an ongoing process."