THE OXFORD BOOM! – Can the City Keep Its “Small Town” Charm?

THE OXFORD BOOM! – Can the City Keep Its “Small Town” Charm? November 4, 2016
The Courthouse on the Square

By Collin Brister,
Featured Writer
– As published in the Sept/Oct. 2016 Issue of Rebel Nation Magazine™
Photos by Greg Pevey, Rebel Nation Magazine™

Oxford, for good or bad, isn’t what it once was. It never will be again. This cozy town filled with William Faulkner’s house, the historic square and one of the most beautiful universities in the nation has changed over the past 20 years. It’s changed over the past ten years. It’s changed over the past one.

Take a drive down Jackson Avenue on a Thursday during football season for a home game. You’ll be there for a while, and it’s because the influx of people on this little town has grown so rapidly that the city is somewhat struggling to keep up.

Don’t take that as a negative, for it’s not. The city and residents are happy to see people. They’re happy that this town is appreciated for what it has become, rather than what it was. They’re happy that people are choosing to retire here, but to ignore the impact that this city, this town, has seen over the influx of residents would be naïve.

My dad went to Ole Miss in the early 1970’s. He tells me of what was there and what wasn’t there when we come. Jackson Avenue wasn’t populated. There were no shopping centers. He lived in a trailer where Buffalo Wild Wings is currently located.

He has two children who might as well be Oxford residents. He’s here a lot. He’s noted how much this city and the climate has changed in this used-to-be-little city and how it has a big city feel. He wonders if that’s going to change the perception around Oxford and whether or not that is a good thing. He thinks it is.

“We’ve been going here since you were what? Three? I can’t begin to tell you how it’s different now,” he said. “When we went to games back when Eli was playing there wasn’t all of this. I’m not sure you can consider it the same city that it used to be. Essentially it’s like moving to a new town, but not actually moving. That’s how much it’s changed.”

The William Faulkner Statue at City Hall

The city is different now. You can’t make it from one end of Jackson Avenue to the other during the school year in less than 20 minutes. It’s impossible. The student growth, the resident growth and the tourist growth have changed Oxford and have made it where it’s different. Some are sure that’s a good thing. Others aren’t.

The city, town and climate aren’t the only things that are different. The Ole Miss football program is experiencing success like the team has never seen before. The Rebels have won seven or more games six of the eight last seasons. That’s something that hasn’t been done in modern Ole Miss history.

That changes things, admittedly. Locals tell me that the football team is one of the driving forces of the community. When Ole Miss scores touchdowns, the city of Oxford grows and prospers, the city does well. When the Rebels don’t have a quarterback, the city isn’t the same. It doesn’t grow like it did or could.

The reason? A local realtor that wanted to remain anonymous said that winning football games drive the housing market up like mad. He also said that losing football games brings it down.

“Look on message boards during football season. Look at Craigs List or now Airbnb online. People need places to stay during football season. In theory, yes, it’s simple to say, get a hotel. Have you tried to get a hotel during football season here? It’s not the easiest thing in the world. They sell out maybe a year in advance. People need places to stay, and I think people like the convenience of having their own home type setting,” The realtor said.

When Ole Miss is enjoying historic success on the field, the realtor said that he has no problem selling condos. When they aren’t, he said that the Rebels losses affect the market more than people ever realize.

The Galleria Phase 2

The realtor remembers when Ole Miss went 2-10 and 4-8 during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, respectively. He said that going to work during those years were somewhat dreadful. He said pending the Rebels not getting the death penalty that rival fans have already levied he will enjoy going to work every single day.

“The crazy thing is that it was an immediate impact. They lost that game to Jacksonville State to start the 2010 football season and the next thing I knew people that were interested in buying a condo or house here no longer were. Then they lost like 16 SEC games in a row. Thank God Jeff Scott rolled over that Auburn player. I mean I was happy for Ole Miss that day, I’m a Rebel, but I knew that when I got back to work that next Monday morning, my phone would likely be lighting up. Guess what? It was.”

The realtor said that the past two seasons have seen the housing market boom. He noted that people here are excited about the Rebels, but that Ole Miss’ success has them playing late night games again, not the 11 a.m. kickoff that they’re so used to seeing when Ole Miss wasn’t winning football games.

“I remember in 2013 they played Texas A&M at 8:30 at night or so. Who in God’s name wants to drive home to Biloxi or something at 12:30 a.m? That’s just not practical or realistic. I’m glad of it, too.”

So what is bringing the people to Oxford? Why have they chosen this city with this university and the historic square? Why are they deciding to spend their lives in this city?

It’s a multitude of factors. People want to retire in Oxford. The city, at its core, is a quite peaceful city if you avoid the square on Thursday-Saturday nights. People that have their lives made want to be close to the university that may have helped in their success. They want to be able to drive to football games, baseball practice or double decker weekend.

Another reason people are making the trek to Oxford is the school district. The Oxford public school system is one of the highest ranked systems in the state. It’s one of nicest as well.

Oxford spent over 1 million dollars the past couple of years to build a new high school, and the return on investment seems to have paid off.

The board of alderman believes that the city thrives because at its core is a good public school system. That reasoning and that belief have proven successful over the past few years considering where Oxford has ranked in test scores and where they rank among competitors.

Condos are popping up everywhere around town.

Suffice it to say that Oxford High isn’t struggling athletically either. The school won their second consecutive baseball state championship in 2016 and played for their third consecutive state football championship.

People want to raise their kids here. That much is evident.

Derek Stephens graduated from Ole Miss in 2012. He decided he didn’t want to leave and now works in Oxford. He’s not moving.

“We decided when my wife went to graduate school here that we wanted to stay here,” Stevens said. “I have a son now, and I want him to go to Oxford public schools. They’re that good, and that’s extremely important to us.”

Ole Miss has seen a rise in students every single year. They continually break records for new incoming students. The attraction to Oxford for students, young parents, and the retired crowd is real. It’s beyond palpable.

The most pertinent question to the situation is “How does Oxford keep it’s charm that makes Oxford, Oxford?”

That’s one question that’s more difficult to answer. Oxford has been rated one of the best college towns in America consistently over the past couple of years. The people here are somewhat reluctant to talk about it. Not because they consider the town’s growth an actual issue, but because they don’t know exactly the plans to make sure that Oxford stays the way it once was, or always be.

Note the difference in the summer. The people and residents of Oxford don’t have to fight students at the level that they do when school is in session.

A resident, who’s a Mississippi State fan ironically enough, and chose to remain anonymous told me that his family could get out more during the summer because they don’t fear of having to wait an hour for a table at a local restaurant.

“The thing with the summer is, especially June and July because the kids don’t start coming back until early August, is that we don’t consider what we have to do to go get a meal, it’s just get up and go. During the school year, if you want to go somewhere during the weekend, you better be ready to wait, “ the resident said.

He also said that there is an opportunity for locals to get their shopping and things they need to do around the town done.

“Have you ever seen Oxford during a football game? There’s nobody on the streets, and I can do whatever I need,” they said.

All in all, Oxford has questions it has to answer about the sudden growth of the city, and there are questions that they have to be answered relatively quickly. A city official told said that they’re aware of the city’s growth, and they understand that changes have to be made.

Jackson Avenue and University Avenue have both taken out stop lights over the past year. They had to. Traffic and congestion were clogging up the town streets in a way that people couldn’t operate. It made it feel like there wasn’t a need to get out. The official said that is something the city has to take into account and avoid.

Where does Oxford grow? Sure there’s space off of Hwy 7 where the new bowling alley and the new movie theater are. It houses the secret Wendy’s that’s not very secret anymore, but Oxford is running out of space to continually grow things.

What’s interesting is the growth that cities that surround Oxford have done. Water Valley is likely a 20-minute drive from Oxford, but it’s grown in population. People stay in hotels there when they come to watch Ole Miss because it’s not too miserable of a drive for people to do on a game day. Water Valley has grown from a cultural aspect as well with the arts.

I went to Ole Miss baseball games when I was five and six years old. Nobody went because it wasn’t something that entertained a lot of people. Now, Ole Miss regularly draws over 10,000 people at a weekend baseball game. They have people hanging off of terraces and drinking beer out of red cups.

In a sense, that’s what the city of Oxford has done. It’s always been a quiet North Mississippi town, but the city has found itself attracting more and more people to call it home, to a sense that it’s growing faster than maybe people within the city had planned.

“They say that Oxford could double in size they next ten years,” Stevens said. “ I think that a lot of it is when your enrollment increases and a lot of these kids see how great of a place Oxford is and how much it’s booming. It’s affordable, and it has a great quality of life. It tends to make people want to stick around more.” – RN

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