Cultivating Community Wealth: Success Stories

Tupelo HardwareThis post is part of an eight-week series on Cultivating Community Wealth.

I was first introduced to the story of Tupelo, Mississippi, not long after I moved to Texas. The Texas Rural Innovators had invited Vaughn Grisham to tell the story, and I promise you Vaughn is a good story teller. (His brother is famous author John Grisham.) His book, co-written with Rob Gurwitt, is available for free download or hardcopy purchase from The Aspen Institute.

Earlier this month, I was able to visit Tupelo while I was traveling to a meeting at Mississippi State University. I like to go eat when I get to a new town, so I planned to arrive in Tupelo for breakfast and stopped at what I later learned is the city’s oldest restaurant where I listened in on the locals’ discussion before doing some shopping and sightseeing. I visited Tupelo Hardware, where newspaperman George McLean discussed economic development with store owner:

“As long as your customers are poor,” he said, “you’re going to be poor. You can’t sell them anything beyond their spendable income. So let’s find a way they can make more money. If they can make more money, they can buy more of your hardware.” (Grisham and Gurwitt 2004, p. 14).

McLean’s three fundamental ideas, which he pressed upon businessmen and town leaders, were:

  • “Tupelo’s future lay as much in the countryside around it as it did in the town itself;
  • It depended as much on Lee County’s poorest residents as it did on its most favored; and
  • Citizens who could afford to do so ought to invest their money and time in raising the quality of life of all the area’s people.” (Grisham and Gurwitt 2004, p. 15).

Regionalism, the livelihoods of those on the margin, and creating community wealth in 1940 in rural Mississippi. These same themes are applied in the WealthWorks framework and other rural/community wealth programs.

Today, Tupelo is not only a regional trade center but also boasts a strong tourism industry. It turns out that some guy named Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo and purchased his first guitar at Tupelo Hardware. I was there to see the history and economy, but I’m told more people want to see Elvis’s house. So I drove by that on my way out of town. It’s tiny.

Elvis Birthplace


Grisham, Vaughn, and Rob Gurwitt. 2004. Hand in Hand: Community and Economic Development in Tupelo. The Aspen Institute, Washington, DC.


Rural Wealth Creation – USDA-ERS report related to the book – Choices Magazine issue on the subject of rural wealth, mostly by book authors

Wealth Creation and Rural Livelihoods – includes a forum and listserv

Pender, John L., Bruce A. Weber, Thomas G. Johnson, and J. Matthew Fannin, eds. Rural Wealth Creation, Routledge, New York






About Rebekka Dudensing

Dr. Rebekka Dudensing is an Associate Professor and Extension Economist - Community Economic Development with Texas AgriLife Extension and Research in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M. Her research interests include the evaluation of economic development opportunities, taxation and public/private goods issues, entrepreneurship, and regional economic cooperation.
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