Tupelo — If the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi accomplishes nothing else, it has at least succeeded “in the breaking down of artificial barriers that have tended to keep us apart,” said Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr. at the close of the commission’s state of the region report May 22.
The “us” to which Reed was referring are the 15 counties that makeup the northeast region of Mississippi, a place once notable for being the “poorest section of the poorest state in the Union,” Reed said.
Today, that is not so, and, in fact, can boast of having the most manufacturing jobs, some of the highest per capita wages and best standard of living in the state.
While the region has come a long way from being an area virtually isolated from the outside world, with no major highways, a dependence on a declining agricultural base and little hope of manufacturing employment, the thrust of the commission meeting was that it can do better.
And by joining together through efforts like the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, it will do better, said Reed, one of the 40 businessmen, homemakers, industrialists, politicians, healthcare professionals and bankers who make up the now three-year-old organization.
“In fact, we have so much in common that it strikes me as ridiculous to dwell on what separates us,” he said. “What we have going in this organization is that we are united in a common cause, and there is joy and satisfaction in that.”
The latest report by the commission shows that there is great satisfaction among the people of northeast Mississippi for the quality of life they are leading, and a general good feeling about the direction the region is headed.
In fact, a survey of 400 people throughout the region showed that 83% of those asked felt that their quality of life was better in 1997 versus 1996, said Verne Kennedy, director of the Marketing Research Institute, the group hired by the commission to poll residents and help compile the report for the first time last year. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed felt the direction of the region was better than a year ago.
This year’s percentage of people who felt their quality of life was better was up 5% from 78% in 1997, Kennedy said.
“That is a significant increase,” he said. “There is definitely higher satisfaction with the quality of life.” And, he noted, that satisfaction is up for those in both rural and urban areas of the region.
Begun in 1995 as an effort of the not-for-profit Create Foundation, a charitable organization based in Tupelo, the commission is charged with identifying a broad range of socio-economic conditions and issues in the region and helping recommend ways to address those issues. And, as Reed noted, the group is also charged with promoting “regional unity and cooperation.”
To help aid in that process the Commission hired Kennedy, who is the president of the Marketing Research Institute in Pensacola, Fla., the former president of Belhaven College in Jackson and was recently named one of the top five political consultants in the country.
Mike Clayborne, president of Create, said improving the quality of life for those who live in the region is the ultimate goal of the commission but that a moving target is difficult to identify.
“What is the quality of life?” Clayborne asked. “How do you get your hands around that? These reports are an attempt to figure out what are the quality of life issues.”
Last year, the first year the report was prepared, a massive county-by-county survey was conducted. A similar effort will be tackled every five years. In between, as was the case for this year’s report, only a regional survey was conducted, said Morgan Baldwin, director of programs for Create.
In addition to the survey, extensive data was collected to update the information gathered and disseminated last year, including statistics pertaining to such major areas as the economy, public safety, education, health, housing and government. Specifically, the report provided both regional and county statistics for income, unemployment rates, savings and debt rates, graduation rates, average class sizes, homicide rates, divorces, births to single teens, infant mortality rates, median home values and more.
Baldwin said the report continues to be a working document, with areas of interest being added whenever possible.
“It’s important to keep the information we’ve got but we’re open to adding in new suggestions,” Baldwin said.
Two examples of that for this year’s report was the addition of savings per $1,000 income, at the request of the banking community, and the addition of deaths per 100,000 by stroke and cardiopulmonary disease, at the request of physicians.
H. L. “Sandy” Williams, president of Coca-Cola Bottling Works in Corinth and chairman of the commission for the last three years, asked those leaders from the individual communities who were present for the report’s release to return to their towns and counties and over the next several weeks and months take the information provided in the report, find areas that they feel need to be addressed, and formulate a plan of action.
Indeed, Baldwin agreed that without action, the report remains a useless piece of paper. But used correctly it can be more than that.
“These are just numbers, but you’ve got to see the numbers to know where you are,” he said, noting that over the next year specific projects will be started to achieve the five-year goals set by communities.
To encourage and reward communities to become proactive, Create has established a program to award grants of $500 to local economic and community development organizations that develop a mission statement, outline a program of work and set priorities to achieve those goals. Already, five counties have received that grant, Baldwin said.
“The whole idea is that it’s so important to know in a given year what you’re priorities are and which ones you’ve met,” he said.
Additionally, a $1.625 million fund has been established to provide counties with the seed money to establish their own local endowment. Create will provide up to $100,000 when counties raise $200,000 for the endowment fund and interest from the fund will be used to fund any number of local quality of life programs.
But beyond the grants and the endowments, specific programs or plans, Baldwin said the true impact of the commission is, as Reed noted, to bring down barriers and unify the region. Already a group of 20 different historical groups are in the early stages of working together to formulate a regional history effort, Baldwin said. Although not the direct result of the commission, he said he truly believes it is a by-product and just the start.
“That’s not something that would have happened before,” he said. “Bringing unity and cooperation to northeast Mississippi is the No. 1 priority [and] something, as we go along, you will notice more and more.”