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SUNDAY CONVERSATIONS: Torey Bell

By Robert Smith

Doddsville Mayor Torey Bell is diligently cultivating the small Sunflower County town’s development prospects. Now in his second term as mayor, Bell has focused on infrastructure and service improvements as the foundation for attracting residents.

A Sunflower County native, Bell benefited, starting at an early age, from the guiding influence of James Haywood, the current sheriff and a former highway patrolman.

“Being around that environment sparked an interest in certain issues and laws,” Bell says, accounting for the development of his interest in public affairs. “There were a lot of things that he imparted.”

After high school, Bell served in the Army National Guard and studied at Mississippi Delta Community College to become an Emergency Medical Technician. Later, he trained to become a surgery technician. Bell also married and moved to Doddsville, where he soon took an active interest in the needs of the town.

“Once I got there, I saw some things that struck my interest in regard to general well-being and public health,” he said, explaining that he served in the volunteer fire department and then ran for a seat on the Board of Aldermen. Right from the start, after being elected, his colleagues put trust in him, voting to make him vice mayor.

As he gained experience, Bell made efforts to develop activities for youth in the Doddsville area, taking them to ball games and trying to provide them a chance to play baseball in the summers to keep them constructively occupied.

After a term as an alderman, Bell ran for mayor. He recalls that he was concerned about the fashion in which town government was functioning, and wanted to bring about improvements.

“I expressed my feelings about what I didn’t like and what I figured we should have been doing,” he says. “I was reluctant to run because I didn’t know if I could actually function in that capacity with the experience I had. But eventually I put my name in there and I was uncontested.”

CNL: Could you talk a little about what the town was able to accomplish during your first term as mayor?

BELL: The initial plan was to reconnect the town back to the state. We were out of compliance in regard to a lot of documentation, a lot of information that was needed in order to keep us incorporated, according to Eric Clark, the secretary of state. When I took office, we had received a certification stating that we had been reduced from a town to a village, which meant that we were out of compliance and the population was declining. The town was not showing any economic progress.
So initially what I did was I got in communication with the attorney general and the secretary of state to find out what we had to do to get back in compliance and to start focusing on economic improvements for the community.

CNL: So what kinds of things were you able to do to raise Doddsville’s status?

BELL: The first thing we did was we tried to establish an official place of operation. We didn’t have an official town hall at all. They had been operating out of the back of storefronts and people’s homes, and out of the old Health Department building that belonged to Sunflower County. So we didn’t have adequate space to establish ourselves or have an official place of business. Everything was pretty much temporary. So we purchased our first town hall and we turned around and made sure we had an attorney. Later on, we began to work on a facility for meetings for the community – a community house – and we got that going. Then we focused on cleaning things up by getting rid of a lot of the dilapidated old homes.

We had to clear out a lot of dilapidated houses, and people were actually living in those facilities. Those were the living quarters of a lot of residents. We entered into a partnership with the Mississippi Development Authority to bring in funds to improve the quality of life for those citizens. What we did is we demolished the old homes and built energy-efficient homes according to standard guidelines regarding family size.

CNL: So during your first term you were able to put the structure of the municipality back together?

BELL: Correct. We got pretty much all of our reports and our documentation in place and got back in compliance with our code charter. We got to where we actually had a functioning board, with minutes and a minute book and ordinances in place. A lot of it had been lacking. It had dissolved since 1996, when the town of Doddsville had a fire that destroyed documentation from that time back to when it was incorporated.

One of the biggest things was the day-to-day operations of the municipality, concerning administrative functions as well as public health; for instance, the water system. Improper documentation there, improper management, poor water-line circulation, dilapidated meters, insufficient chlorine supply – a lot of issues came out once the process began to unfold. We had a lot of maintenance problems, a lot of serious issues that had to be addressed.

CNL: So how are things now?

BELL: We’re actually back on the map. Our population has tripled. The last census (2000) showed that we were 109, but the CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) census that we did when we got into the water-improvement project showed that we have 363 citizens now.

CNL: Could you describe your water-improvement project?

BELL: We were approved in 2004 for the project. The project did not really start until 2005. We were awarded a $300,000 grant to improve our water system. It allowed us to bring in a totally new operating system that was computerized, and that actually monitors things like water levels and the amount of chlorine that needs to be injected. We put in new six-inch lines, where we had only four-inch or two-inch lines before. That helps with fire protection. We also now have computerized phone calling for emergency purposes, where if the well fails or electricity goes out, the system dials our emergency number so that somebody knows to respond before we get into a critical state.

CNL: Will that help with property-insurance rates in Doddsville?

BELL: We met with the Rating Bureau concerning that and it won’t actually cause our rates to lower yet because we’ve got to establish a fire department. We were covered by Ruleville, the city that is a few miles north of us. But once the Rating Bureau came in and actually did a survey, we were beyond the five-mile radius from the door of the (Ruleville) fire department to the town hall (of Doddsville). We were over five miles, so we had to become our own district. So we are actually in the process of that now; trying to establish a volunteer fire department. We’re hoping we can have the department in place – full, complete and operational, with a truck – by the end of this year, 2006. We’ve already begun to select the staff. We’re now working with the county (Sunflower County) to try to obtain a fire truck.

Linn will profit from our new fire department. Blaine will profit from our fire department, as will other small plantation areas that have no fire coverage.

We did have a fire department previously, and it was certified and operational at that time, but there were problems that developed. The truck itself became inoperative. There was actually no particular location for the fire department, and the volunteering staff was not up to standard.

CNL: So you’ve made improvements in the water system and you’re re-creating fire service. What other kinds of improvements are being made in Doddsville that will make it an attractive place to develop?

BELL: We’re actually working on a subdivision now for moderate-income homes with the Mississippi Home Corp. There will be down-payment assistance so that people can actually afford homes. We have two houses that are already in the development stage. We’ve made a partnership with Planters Bank to be the funding source for the loans for these particular projects.

CNL: And don’t you also have some improvements that BellSouth has been making in Doddsville?

BELL: They came in and we struck an agreement with them to put in a small substation located behind our town hall to improve communication levels. We are also working with a company out of Jackson that helps small municipalities develop telecommunications sites. They’ve done two projects already here in the Delta, and one of them was at Glen Allan that they are in the process of, and the other is at Schlater, which is about eight miles east of us. This will help rural areas have Internet and other types of services. Right now we are in discussions with them to obtain some type of agreement for development of that project. We have a local steering committee made up of citizens that will actually help steer this project for the good of the community.

CNL: How do you see Doddsville developing in the years to come?

BELL: We actually want to bring our town and link it with Cleveland, because of the economic growth that we see there. Plus, it’s more efficient for us to do that because we are only about 12-15 miles from Cleveland, if you travel Highway 49 to Highway 8. With the anticipated four-laning of Highway 8 coming through, we will be only a few miles from a four-lane highway, which will give us access and will hopefully make us attractive as a homestead area for people interested in Cleveland. Indianola (the county seat of Sunflower County) is over 25 miles from us. We’re closer to Cleveland than we are to Indianola and transportation is a little bit better than if we were going to Indianola on Highway 49, because it’s two-lane all the way there (to Indianola). We’re looking at Cleveland to be the job provider for our citizens, and to provide services in areas like health care and education. We think that people could very easily commute from Doddsville to Cleveland.

CNL: Are you looking at attracting more residential development over time?

BELL: We are. The future plan that we have now is to try to establish some type of cooperation in assisting college kids that have to travel from other places to have residences in Doddsville while they come to Delta State University – perhaps a nice apartment complex or something. So we’re actually eyeballing that right now to see if there is a demand and need for that. Also, we’re interested in administrative people coming into the area, hoping they might be willing to look our way. We’ve already developed a partnership with the Sunflower County Sheriff’s Department for security purposes. We have two deputies now, one that lives right in the corporate limits of Doddsville and another that lives four miles from Doddsville, which will give us good response coverage. We’re also getting ready to implement a night watchman program, where we will appoint somebody to secure the town from 12-4 a.m. to make sure that residents are safe. And we’re working on a marketing plan now for Doddsville to try to attract businesses into the area to provide services to residents – just general, everyday-living products. Just small commodity stores. We’re working with the congressman’s office out of Mound Bayou on the marketing plan.