Public Works, Public Art Help Hattiesburg Through the Pandemic
The Mississippi city's Mayor Toby Barker recalls the highs and lows of navigating COVID-19's delta and omicron waves.
“It’s been a hell of a three years,” says Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker. It’s been almost that long since he spoke to Governing about what it was like to guide his city through the “awful moments” of a public health emergency that was just beginning to unfold.
In July of 2020, COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. were far below the April peak. They were on the way back up but no one could have predicted the trouble the delta variant would bring to the country, and to Barker’s community, over the next six months.
Barker recalls an interview he gave to a local news station at a point in 2021 when the death toll in the Hattiesburg metro area had hit 230. “I said that for the first time out loud, and I almost couldn’t get through it.”
His city of 47,000 was the first in the state with a mask mandate. Barker — who has a master’s degree in health leadership — also left the mask requirement in place after the state rule ended. “There was some pushback, but I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “By that time, I’d made so many unpopular decisions I just let it go.”
When vaccines became widely available in April 2021, Barker ordered masking requirements to end at the beginning of May. He was up for re-election on June 7.
Consistent with his own health orders, he campaigned door to door, wearing a mask. There were no public events, no town halls or fundraisers.
The campaign was a success, despite being “an unusual experience.” Barker ran as an independent and won every precinct and 85 percent of the vote.
More unusual and difficult experiences lay ahead, but along the way the city worked to push some light into the pandemic’s darkness. As one consequence, Hattiesburg became a destination for art lovers.
A Lot to Unpack
Barker’s health training emphasized the importance of community stakeholders working together. Before the first COVID-19 case hit Hattiesburg, he implemented a weekly call with city and county officials and representatives from emergency management, school districts and universities. That continued for two years.
“That was one of the things we got right,” he says. “It was great in terms of sharing information and resources, and trying to come up with consistent talking points. Our health-care providers were very faithful about being on that call and educating those of us who were not as smart.”
Hattiesburg had its share of vaccine hesitancy, but no one ever showed up at Barker’s office to protest. Board members for Hattiesburg’s school district are appointed by the mayor, not elected. That reduced political pressure on schools regarding their COVID-19 rules and made it easier for them to be tougher, for longer, in terms of masks and social distancing, Barker says.
None of this meant that the city escaped the workforce disruption, economic setbacks and trauma that COVID-19 brought to the country. Like mayors in other cities, Barker experienced lows that came from feeling ill-equipped to deal with the harm the virus was inflicting on his community.
“A lot of us have a lot unpacking to do at some point in the future,” he says. “I was asked to be on a panel about COVID and I couldn’t do it — I can’t go there yet.”
The present has its own imperatives and accomplishments the city can celebrate.
A national survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that recruitment of new officers picked up in 2022. Even so, there were enough resignations and retirements to cause this workforce to shrink.
Hattiesburg gained a recruitment advantage in 2022 with the opening of a new public safety complex, the culmination of a decade of planning and development. The 90,000-square-foot building will accommodate every aspect of the city’s police department, as well as trials, hearings and fine payment.
Even with an ideal work environment to offer, hiring and retention are ongoing challenges for the city. Barker’s planning investments in both pay and recruitment.
Other transformative public works projects are underway.
Several important rail lines intersect at Hattiesburg. That helped it prosper from a Mississippi lumber boom in the early 1900s, but the 20 street-level railway crossings in the town have been a problem for over a century, slowing traffic and widening gaps between affluent and disadvantaged neighborhoods.
In May of 2022, the city broke ground on the first phase of a project that will create two railway overpasses. Costs have escalated significantly since the project received its first grants, but the city is pressing forward.
Based on its population, Hattiesburg received $12.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Barker surveyed residents to see how they’d want the funds to be spent. Based on their response, they will be used to buy a new ladder truck for the fire department and fund a mental health crisis stabilization center. Part will go toward sewer and stormwater infrastructure; the city’s allocations for this work will be matched by the state.
The pandemic also brought forward public works of other sorts, manifesting resilience and creativity in ways Barker had not expected.
The Public Art Trail
In March of 2020, Hattiesburg unveiled a five-year plan to strengthen its brand as a destination city, recalls Marlo Dorsey, executive director for the nonprofit VisitHATTIESBURG. One week later, stay-at-home orders were issued.
The public health situation brought the plan to a “screeching halt,” Dorsey says, but that prompted discussions about whether any part of it could move forward safely. “One of the things that came out of that was to double and triple down on public art.”
Work had just begun on a mural with a quote from poet Maya Angelou: “Today is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” Public response to its message was overwhelming, Dorsey recalls, at a time of “unknowns, uncertainty and scariness.”
Today, the Hattiesburg Public Art Trail encompasses 44 murals (the goal is now 100) and it has emerged as a regional and national destination for art lovers. Because the work is created and viewed outdoors, the project provided work for artists and relief for citizens as pandemic concerns ebbed and flowed.
The city provided some funding, but more importantly, the mayor served as a fundraising partner and included the work in his weekly pandemic meetings, says Dorsey. “While we were talking about hospitalization rates and numbers, we were also talking about ways to provide people with a little bit of a reprieve from all of that.”
A neglected alley across from city hall became another regional attraction. Murals, string lights and picnic tables created a vibrant pedestrian and gathering space, a setting for the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum, in the window of the historic Saenger Theatre.
Writing the History
Hattiesburg made it through the pandemic, but Barker recognizes that it will take effort to keep everyone on the same page and moving forward together.
“At some point it will be important to write the story of the pandemic so it can be told to future generations,” he says. Even though he’s a student of history, Barker’s not ready to take that on just yet.
“It's really hard to go back and reread some of those text messages that you got when people were very angry — those aren’t fun.”