“You don’t have flashlights? You must be new here.”
It was a late summer day in 2000. We were, indeed, new to New Albany, and our daughter was newly enrolled in the city schools. We’d arrived early at the high school auditorium, with perhaps 50 other sets of parents, for a band concert. Without so much as a warning flicker, all the lights went out and it was suddenly pitch black in the auditorium. Within seconds, dozens of flashlights came on all around the room.
A flashlight-equipped man sitting near us, observing that we were sans flashlight, immediately knew we were new in town. Everybody who’d lived in New Albany any length of time knew that electrical power failures were frequent. Prudence dictated always being armed with a flashlight. (Flashlights — not the light devices on iPhones, which weren’t available until seven years later. Actual flashlights.)
So the concert went on, the room more or less adequately lighted by flashlights.
Years of neglect and denial take their toll
There were no strong winds or storm clouds within at least a hundred miles of New Albany, nor any other obvious causes for a power failure on a nice August day.
Nope. Back then, the lights just went out, often and without explanation. Everybody knew it was a problem. In those days, the consistent response of New Albany Lights, Gas and Water (NALGW), the city owned utility company, was denial of the problem.
“Absolutely not. Power failures here are no more frequent than anywhere else. There is no elephant in this room, and no problem with our electrical service. Everything here’s hunky dory.”
There was another problem with the services provided by NALGW. The water was often dirty — an ugly brown color — and it sometimes stank. NALGW’s response was the same.
“No. No problem with the water, it’s perfectly safe to drink. You folks just need to stop complaining about brown water.”
We’d thoroughly checked out the public schools, medical care, available housing, etc. before choosing New Albany as our new home. We quickly realized we had omitted an important piece of the daily lifestyle puzzle.
A new willingness to address the problems
Then, things took a strong turn for the better in June, 2010. The city fathers hired Bill Mattox, an educated engineer, a native son, a man with years of experience in well-managed public utility companies elsewhere, and they put him in charge of NALGW.
Mattox brought an immediate improvement to the life of every person in New Albany. He did something amazing: he told the truth.
Mattox did not deny that there were problems with the electrical and water service. He acknowledged there were problems. He listened professionally and patiently to complaints. He returned his phone calls, responded to questions and tried to keep people truthfully informed about was happening with their local utility services.
Today, it is finally true that power failures are no more frequent in New Albany than anywhere else. We don’t know all of what Mattox did to make it better. There have been a few retirements, but no significant turnover in personnel. So it wasn’t that he fired a bunch of people and hired new ones. We think it mainly came down to better maintenance, better leadership and open communication. The crews at NALGW take a great deal of pride in the work they do, and everyone benefits from good service.
During 2017, two holiday weekends in a row — Memorial Day and Independence Day — a great part of the local power grid was knocked out by severe wind storms. The NALGW crews jumped right astraddle of the mess in both cases. The first storm hit about midnight on Saturday, May 27, of Memorial Day Weekend. Well over half of NALGW’s 10,000 electric customers were without power. All but 500 had power restored within 24 hours, and all but a few isolated customers had electricity by nighttime Monday. The storm that struck Monday, July 3, was less severe, but a few thousand were again without electricity. All main circuits were restored and most customers had power restored by 6 p.m. the same day. We note again that the restoration work in both instances was done during holiday weekends, when NALGW workers were to have been enjoying the holidays with their families.
What New Albany needs for the future
While electrical service is greatly improved since 2010, brown water is still a problem. It’s somewhat better, due mainly to a systematic program of flushing ancient ferrous metal water lines, but still not nearly as good as it needs to be. It will take a great deal of money to solve the water problem, but solving the problem is more important now than ever before.
Because now, New Albany has thousands of visitors each year to its hotels, shops, hospital, restaurants, parks, Tanglefoot Trail, etc. Those visitors know smelly brown water when they see it, and it is not something they will be willing to overlook when considering sites for their next day trip, family gathering, or, especially, their new home.
When our daughter was ready for high school in 2000 we looked seriously at two north Mississippi towns with good public school systems. We had a good offer from the Commercial Appeal to manage the launch of their new DeSoto County edition. Instead, we accepted a job as publisher of the New Albany Gazette, which was by no means the best work experience we’ve ever had. However, we’ve never regretted moving to New Albany. If we had seen the brown water first, might we have made the mistake of going to Southaven instead? Can’t say, but it would have been a significant negative, as it would still be to anyone considering New Albany in 2017.
If we are serious about taking New Albany forward, we have to do what has not been done before. Its current leaders must buy into the future. It is way past time for them to take a comprehensive look at New Albany’s assets and liabilities. It is past time for recognizing the difference between necessary priorities and desirable fluff.
Abundant, clean potable water is a good place to start.
Bill Mattox has proven himself a “make it happen” guy. It’s time the city’s political leadership put together the financing to give Mattox what he needs to plan and implement a long-term solution to our water problem. It is necessary and it is possible.
More about that later this week.