Hattiesburg mayor shares his vision for Hub City
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Newly re-elected Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker has a vision for the next four years in the Hub City: making Hattiesburg the premiere city in the gulf south. But getting there means dealing with a decades-old separation within the city, more jobs and pandemic recovery.
Barker joined WDAM on a walk-through of Hattiesburg to talk about the next four years.
Our first stop was an alley, but it’s not just any alley. It’s a secret spot called The Pocket Museum. It’s one of the highlights of innovation birthed from the pandemic.
Barker said this alley symbolizes the forward, out-of-the-box thinking that can push the city past this last year and out of the tough times that came with it.
“It’s no fun getting that information every day: how many new infections, how many hospitalizations, ICU, how many deaths per day. That’s never information you wanted to get, but it was information you had to have, and we made decisions based on that,” Barker said.
Decisions that lead to curtailed business hours, a lawsuit and mandates that became divisive. When asked about his decision to keep the mask mandate for the city of Hattiesburg after the governor lifted the mandate, which wasn’t a popular decision to some, Baker said he was giving residents the time they needed to stay safe.
“I think we decided early on that we were going to make decisions based on data and not Facebook comments,” Barker said. “The whole idea of having a mask mandate was to give yourself time until a vaccine was widely available, or until treatment was widely available, and that’s what we did. I am glad we waited until we did.”
Barker made tough decisions in the last year of his first term. When asked if he thought those decisions could cost him re-election, Barker became emotional. He said his only thoughts were of the 230 citizens who lost their lives. He said life and public health were the main concerns.
Barker said another concern is located at West Railroad Street and 6th Avenue. It’s an area that will bridge east Hattiesburg to central and west Hattiesburg, literally and figuratively.
“Over our shoulder right here will be where the second overpass will be built,” Barker said.
West Railroad Street and 6th Avenue will be the location for one of the two overpasses coming to east Hattiesburg. Barker said it’s a step toward eliminating a generations-old barrier of the eastside community and central Hattiesburg, fixing the problem of train delays and the hardships that come with it.
“Back in January, we had someone try to go around the tracks and two young people were killed,” Barker said. “You’re getting rid of that problem, public safety, a loss of productivity because you can’t get to where you are going.”
He said the road improvements that will come along with the overpasses, plus the new police station, means $55 million going directly to east Hattiesburg. He acknowledged it’s a neighborhood that carries the label of undeserved and, some feel, historically has not been as affluent as parts of central and west Hattiesburg. Barker said development is the catalyst for change for east Hattiesburg and beyond.
“I think putting the focus back on education but also workforce training opportunities also gives people ladders of opportunity that they can go and better their neighborhood, and I think the progress you are going to see now over the next four years is going to be really exciting for all neighborhoods,” Barker said.
Barker said what’s still missing in Hattiesburg is the aspiration to play in a bigger league. He said an emphasis on infrastructure, education, public safety and job opportunity will launch the city into greater success.
“Which means we need to diversify our employment and job opportunities where we are going after these fortune 100 companies, and we are going after corporate headquarters to come here because that is going to retain our young talent,” Barker said. “Folks don’t realize that 40% of our population is under the age of 40. That’s one of the top two or three in the entire south. That’s a lot of young talent that we just have to harness, retain and try to empower.”
Barker said his vision for Hattiesburg will remain just that, a vision, without the push to recover from the pandemic. He said that means more shots in arms, getting businesses fully staffed and promoting the hospitality industry.
“Making sure folks have access to job training because there’s a lot of job openings but people don’t have the skill set to go get those jobs,” Barker said. “Also, just promoting Hattiesburg, promoting events that we have been missing out on for a year, promoting new businesses that come open.”
His priorities for the next four years all boil down to growth. Barker said the Hub City is the third most visited city in Mississippi, which means there are attractions here to build on like Tatum Park and retail growth in every ward.
Barker’s long-term goal, and perhaps biggest, is ranking number two in the state in the retail economy with a plan to get to number one by the end of the decade.
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