WJTV News Channel 12 - SPECIAL REPORT: Broke Cities



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Since 2008, at least 13 cities and counties nationwide have been so bad off financially, they've had no other choice but to file for bankruptcy protection. No Mississippi cities are on the list, but several bankrupt cities are in our part of the country. Gould, Arkansas; Prichard, Alabama and Jefferson County, Alabama have all filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Protection since 2008.

Credit rating agency Standard & Poor's says bankrupt cities face a long road to recovery. First, they say the city's credit rating takes a hit. That makes it difficult to borrow money. And second, bankruptcy protection is just a short-term fix. The cities stay afloat but certainly don't prosper.

Even though no Mississippi cities are bankrupt, many are struggling financially. We visited the city of Durant, where the population and cash-flow are down, but spirits remain high.

Jonell Payton has called Durant "home" for 23 years. "I love Durant," she tells us. "I do a lot of volunteer work for the city."

Durant is a small city in Holmes County about 50 miles north of Jackson.

"I do everything I can to try to make it a better place to live," says Payton. She has seen Durant during its highs and lows. She says right now, it's pretty low. "Because financially, a lot of people are not well off in this town."

Driving around town, that's easy to see.

"We're struggling right now in a lot of areas. We're struggling for business, and times are hard," says Payton.

The Movie Gallery is boarded up. The old Piggly Wiggly is empty, and the building is for sale. US Census figures show the median household income in Durant is about $23,000. That's $12,000 less than the state average. But the people in Durant are not giving up.

"The goal is to recover, to restore this town to its original grandeur it once was," says Durant's mayor for the last four years, Robert Johnson. He knows his town faces some major challenges. 9% of Durant's population has moved away. 45% of the remaining citizens live below the poverty line.

We asked the mayor if bankruptcy is an option: "No," he told us. "We're not that bad."

But they're close. About four months ago, city employees were forced to begin taking unpaid days off. The mayor hopes the furloughs are temporary.

"No one loses a job, everyone keeps their benefits, they've got their retirement," he explains.

The cutbacks are helping: employees work four days a week; city vehicles are parked more using less gas. So far, Durant has saved thousands.

"We are winning the battle, but the war is still on-going," says Mayor Johnson.

The city is attacking the problem by trying to attract new businesses. A new Subway just opened a few months ago. The mayor hopes little victories like this are a sign of things to come.

"What is it that Durant has to offer that you can't find more of in Jackson or Meridian, Biloxi, Greenville, somewhere like that?" he asks. "We've got to find that resource that we can pull from to pull out to make it a little more attractive."

We asked the mayor "What is that resource?" He told us "That is yet to be determined."

Shari Veazey is in charge of the Mississippi Municipal League, a private organization that member cities come to for advice.

"There are some of our cities that are in rural areas, and that's a real tough hill for them to climb to attract economic development," says Veazey.

She tells us cities that are doing well have certain things in common: good schools, a college nearby and a younger population.

"We are just not in an area that probably has the community college training to prepare a workforce for that type of industry," says Mayor Johnson. "And we need to prepare for that."

Despite the immediate challenges, many of Durant's residents see a light at the end of the tunnel.

"I see a great future for Durant," says Payton. "And I want to try to be a part of helping to make it a better place to live."

Until then, life in Durant will include city officials fishing for new business, limited hours for city employees and other cost cutting measures.

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