Leaders could learn lesson from Barbour

Published 6:00 am Friday, January 12, 2007

Take this Haley Barbour quiz, if you dare.

If you had to choose between a city that has a major manufacturer employing thousands of people or a city that has no major manufacturer, which city do you think is prospering the greatest?

That was the question the governor posed recently when he spoke to The Natchez Democrat editorial board.

Email newsletter signup

Just by listening to the brief descriptions of the two municipalities, you might think the town with the industry is prospering the greatest.

As you might guess, this is a trick question.

The town with the major employer is Canton. And the other town you might be surprised to realize is Oxford.

The comment Barbour made to the editorial board was made in passing, just a brief remark when he discovered our managing editor Julie Finley is from Oxford.

Was he trying to offer a lesson to Natchez and Southwest Mississippi? Probably not. But the more I thought about the tale of these two cities — Canton and Oxford — the more I decided that there are some very important lessons that local leaders and businesses can learn.

First, the key to prosperity is not always with big industry.

In the last decade, manufacturing plant after manufacturing plant has closed its doors and moved operations to Mexico and China, all in search of cheap labor and materials.

Natchez, of course has not been immune to this problem. International Paper and Johns Mansville are just two names from the past that come to mind.

And even though the state’s largest industry sits on Canton’s doorstep, the city still struggles for economic prosperity.

But take a look at Oxford and you get a different story.

With little manufacturing, the city tucked away in northeast Mississippi has become a model of economic growth.

Since 1990, the population of Oxford has grown nearly 40 percent. In that same time period, the total assessed value of real property has increased by $100 million dollars. That is an increase of more than 300 percent in 16 years, all without a major manufacturer.

Which leads to the second lesson — education is one of the keys to prosperity.

From the governor to the State Superintendent of Education, Hank Bounds, leaders across the state know that an educated work force not only creates opportunity for better jobs , it creates better cities.

In Canton, Nissan struggles to find an adequate workforce. They can’t find it in Canton. Instead, they find it wherever they can across the state. In fact, Nissan hires employees from 80 out of the state’s 82 counties, all because they can’t find an adequate workforce, they say.

As Oxford has shown, universities help feed such a workforce.

And better yet, universities make for a vibrant, energetic and creative environment, one that attracts a diverse set of people both old and young and black and white.

These are lessons Natchez can learn from Canton and Oxford.

At a time when our own neighboring university, Alcorn State, is in a period of transition, looking for a new leader and a new direction, now is the time to say, “Come to Natchez and see what we have to offer.”

Making Alcorn State University an integral part of the area could help transform Natchez into the vibrant, prosperous community leaders say they want.

As they reach out to industries like coal-to-liquid plants and federal prisons, let’s hope that area leaders are looking to Alcorn State University and Copiah-Lincoln Community College, like Oxford looks to Ole Miss.

Which would we rather be more like? Canton or Oxford?

That’s no trick question.

Ben Hillyer is web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.