Tupelo visit energizes Miss-Lou regionalism group

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 16, 2010

NATCHEZ — Seventeen community leaders rode a bus six hours to and from Tupelo hoping to learn the secret to the city’s success in economic and community development.

The secret may have been revealed, not in the much-touted north Mississippi city, but across the aisles of the bus, bouncing down Interstate 55 between laughs and serious conversations about the issues facing the Miss-Lou.

“The best thing that came out of the trip was, honestly, the six hours on the bus,” said Heather Malone, director of Concordia Economic and Industrial Development. “Everybody got a chance to get to know one another better.”

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Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton echoed Malone’s sentiments.

“More than anything, we’ve opened up a line of communication between ourselves and Concordia Parish,” he said.

The Tupelo site visit was the first such trip for the Miss-Lou Regional Steering Committee.

The committee of local elected and business leaders was formed last year with the goal of bringing together the communities of Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday for economic and community development.

“We’ve taken a lot of baby steps, which are giant leaps for our community,” Malone said. “(We’ve been) getting everyone around the table month after month.”

The group has been meeting for approximately seven months, mostly building dialogue between community leaders.

“Each time we meet, like Heather said, at our first meetings, everyone was kind of a little bit to ourselves, now we’re all sort of laying it out on the table,” Middleton said.

Debbie Hudson, president and CEO of the Natchez-Adams Chamber of Commerce, said the trip energized the group

“We allowed each other to give our thoughts, good and bad, and ignited great ideas,” she said. “They were talking and keying off each other’s ideas. I think that excited them and we just need to keep that going.

“If everyone in our community could do that, think of what we could accomplish,” Hudson said. “A busload of 17 people, if we could get that energy out to the community, just think what we could accomplish.”

In Tupelo, the group met with leaders with Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation and the CREATE Foundation.

“I came back with a lot of ideas that we can quickly implement here,” Malone said.

Those ideas included:

4 Researching a tuition assistance plan that Tupelo and several other counties in the northeast Mississippi region have implemented that provides funding for area high school graduates to attend two years of community college.

Tupelo leaders told the Miss-Lou group such a program is more affordable than one might think because it provides assistance only to close the gap between available state, federal and private aid sources. Since many students who graduate already qualify for scholarships and other funding sources those who need assistance isn’t generally a great number.

4 Studying how the area might create a community development foundation. Such a foundation could provide a source for people who wish to make donations or bequeath funds to the community and have them be tax-deductible.

4 Modeling a system set up in the Tupelo region, the Miss-Lou group plans to implement more regular, informal meetings of the region’s elected officials to get them all to know one another better. That system in Tupelo has worked well, Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said.

4 Lobbying state legislators from both sides of the river to eliminate out-of-state tuition fees for technical and community colleges within a short distance. Currently students in Concordia Parish must pay out-of-state tuition if they attend Copiah-Lincoln Community College’s Natchez campus.

But all of those involved caution that they committee members cannot accomplish all of these things without help from more community members.

“We’ve got to get more people involved,” Middleton said. “If you’re not happy with what’s going on, step up to the plate and ask, ‘What can I do to help?’”

And residents will be able to do just that in the coming weeks as the Miss-Lou Regional Steering Committee will host a series of informational community forums in February and March.

The first will be at a combined meeting of the area’s chambers of commerce at noon on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at the Vidalia Conference and Convention Center. Subsequent meetings will be in Ferriday and Natchez.

Those in attendance included: Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton, Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland, Adams County Supervisor Mike Lazarus, representatives from the area’s chambers of commerce, representatives from both local economic development authorities, and several private-sector businessmen and businesswomen.