Ripley, Tennessee

For some, the small town of Ripley is defined by its downtown district and all the amenities that have made it so attractive in recent years.

Others embrace the age-old agrarian lifestyle that has made Lauderdale County one of Tennessee’s leaders in agriculture.

But the face of this West Tennessee county bordering the Mississippi River is not framed by one quality against the other – of city versus country. Instead, it’s a melding of Ripley’s downtown revitalization and the continued relevance of rural life. And it makes for an impressive economic impact.

“Agriculture is very important to Ripley and Lauderdale County,” says Frankie McCord, the city’s Main Street program director. “We have a lot of farmers in the county who invest, support and put back into the economy here through their purchases for their crops and the spending of their dollars. It’s like a cycle.”

Ripley Tennessee [INFOGRAPHIC]

From the Ground Up

It’s a cycle that has made Ripley a beacon of how breathing life into a small town can be significant on many levels. It’s an important part of rural economic development, and this town of some 8,400 residents is an example of what can be done through community leadership and the use of resources such as the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the USDA Rural Development (USDARD) agency, among others.

USDARD, for instance, invests over $1 billion each year for rural projects across the state, with eight regional offices.

“Our agency is the arm of the federal government that can help rural communities,” says Bobby Goode, Tennessee state director for the USDARD. “We really say we can build them from the ground up because we have approximately 46 different programs for economic development of rural communities.

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“The rural economy in Tennessee is so important, and to tie that rural economic development with the agriculture that’s out there is the thing that’s going to keep that rural economy strong. Any type of economic development we do in rural Tennessee touches our ag producers.”

Town square Ripley Tennessee

A family shops in downtown Ripley, Tenn.

Revitalization Projects

The efforts in Ripley and similar small towns make them viable for both young and old, McCord says.

“I think it’s critical that small towns jump on board of revitalizing,” she says. “Millennials (are) wanting to go back to hometowns that feel like the towns where they grew up. They’re the ones who will be our leaders, and we need look at their needs and expectations. Even people who grew up here in Ripley, moved, and have now retired and come back, they’re looking for similar things.”

Downtown Ripley began undergoing revitalization after a group of citizens formed the nonprofit Ripley Downtown Development Corporation in 2006. Their keynote project was the improvement of the Lauderdale County Courthouse, an art-deco-style structure that anchors the downtown district. Funding came from the state through the Courthouse Square Revitalization legislation sponsored by Ripley banker and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, as well as from USDA Rural Development.

Other highlights of Ripley’s downtown include an amphitheater that hosts live music, a wading fountain popular during the summer, city parks, dining and shopping destinations, and a farmers market that stays busy May through October.

A more vibrant Ripley makes for a sustainable agriculture industry. Lauderdale County is primarily known for its tomatoes – around 65 growers produce and ship them, and a tomato festival is held each year in honor of the growers. Additionally, the county grows 90,000 acres of soybeans, 19,000 of corn and 10,000 of cotton. Farmers here can be found not only in their fields, but also coaching youth sports, serving on church committees and volunteering in civic organizations.

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