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Growing despite tough times

Once one of the poorest parts of the poorest state in the nation, the Columbus-Tupelo-West Point, Miss., market has improved in the past few decades: Per capita income now approaches the national average, and the area is among the fastest growing in Mississippi.

The double-digit drop in revenue from 2000 to 2001 in an already underperforming market didn't help. But Tupelo, which replaced its Chamber of Commerce in the 1940s with a Community Development Foundation focused on training and reinvestment, has been gaining jobs and was recently called one of the South's "boomtowns" by the Baton Rouge, La., Advocate. Local officials are looking to attract well-off retirees to help boost its economy.

Still, the last few quarters haven't been easy, says 30-year market vet Mark Ledbetter, who as a newsman has been known as "the voice of Mississippi." He runs market leader NBC affiliate WTVA(TV) and Fox affiliate WLOV-TV via an LMA. WTVA also has a joint-sales agreement with ABC affiliate WKDH(TV), which bowed last year.

Rival WCBI-TV recently took over low-power UPN affiliate W22BS and plans to use it for digital broadcasts. Cable carriage will be important, says WCBI-TV GM Jerry Jones. "It's a bit of a gamble on our part and on UPN's part. Not many retailers here that know that much about digital." WTVA is seeking to extend its digital deadlines while, says Ledbetter, working feverishly toward conversion. "It's quite an expense at a time when our local economy is imperiled. Some small-market stations will probably spend as much on HDTV as they're worth. I don't think the majority of people in our market," he adds, "are aware they're going to have to have new TV sets."

Advertising in the market is typical, led by automotive, restaurants and furniture. Furniture manufacturing, in fact, helps drive the local economy.