NATCHEZ — More than 100 business leaders and economic developers are expected to attend the first-annual Southwest Mississippi Economic Symposium Sept. 8 at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez to discuss ways to expedite economic development in the 11 counties that comprise the region.
“During the last eight to 10 years of prosperity, many areas of the state have benefited in per capita income, but Southwest Mississippi has not progressed as rapidly,” said Dr. Steve Wells, director of Alcorn State University’s MBA program. “While we have a lot of good things going for us, there’s a need for a greater sense of community in Southwest Mississippi and it’s our responsibility to address issues that might improve the quality of life, the per capita income and the community and economic development in the region.”
The counties that comprise the region include Adams, Amite, Claiborne, Copiah, Franklin, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lincoln, Pike, Walthall and Wilkerson.
“Cooperation certainly is the key to economic development,” said Dr. Howell Garner, president of Copiah-Lincoln Community College. “We all have roles that we are better at than others. Universities and community colleges have a role. Other aspects of the government and community organizations have a role. Working together, we put all of those components together and the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.”
A challenge for the region has been the lack of a recognizable identity, said Paul McLain, chairman of the board of directors of the Southwest Mississippi Economic Development Partnership.
“People in northwest Mississippi readily identify themselves with the Delta region, and perhaps people in Southeast Mississippi readily identify with the coastal area, but we don’t have a recognizable identity,” he said. “We’re hoping to maybe establish that by bringing people together and thinking of ourselves as Southwest Mississippians, a unified group working together to make things happen in our region.”
The symposium is a joint effort between Alcorn State University’s MBA program, Copiah-Lincoln Community College and Southwest Mississippi Community College.
“It was appropriate for us — the educational and vocational-technical training units of the workforce — to assume some leadership in developing a sense of regional community,” Wells said. “Because they are governed by local boards, the two community colleges don’t have to go through a lot of red tape to come up with training programs that industry needs. If, for example, Georgia-Pacific needs a specific training program, they can go to Co-Lin and within a week’s time, the staff and program can be put together. We have a lot to offer, we just need to get the word out.”
Dr. Clinton Bristow Jr., president of Alcorn State University, coined the phrase “communiversity,” with the concept of universities and community colleges playing a greater role in community and economic development, Wells said.
“Even though the academic agenda is Dr. Bristow’s top priority, he sees the ‘communiversity’ concept as being very important, a way of going outside the ivory towers of academics and doing some outreach in the communities we serve. That’s one of the goals of our MBA program.”
In the spring, 65 graduates students were enrolled in Alcorn’s new MBA program, with 85 expected this fall. The first graduates received MBA diplomas in May, and appropriations were recently approved for a $7 million-plus building in which to house the graduate business program.
“The ultimate goal of the symposium is to get feedback on what economic developers perceive as strengths and areas that would impede progress,” Wells said. “From that, we also want feedback on forming a larger council that could speak for Southwest Mississippi in terms of long term goals.”
The symposium will come on the heels of the special legislative session called by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who is expected to attend.
Wells said the agenda will include updates on two vital economic development ventures — the Franklin County Lake Project and the Business Incubator Project.
“The Franklin County Lake Project constructed by the U.S. Forestry Service in Homochitto National Forest will bring an economic development boost to private industry,” Wells said. “In addition to the 600-plus acre lake, this for-profit project has $20 million earmarked for recreational facilities. The U.S. Forestry Service is looking for bidders now to construct and operate recreational activities conducive to a large lake environment.”
Mobile, Ala.-based Stacey & Associates was contracted to study the feasibility of establishing a system of incubator centers in Southwest Mississippi, Wells said.
“This concept would not include just one incubator facility, but five or six located throughout the region,” he said. “They would not all be of the same nature. Depending on the area, availability of labor and types of needs, some will be service-oriented, near Natchez, for instance, and others will be production-oriented, perhaps in Jefferson or Claiborne counties. They will all be connected and interrelationships between clients will exist.”
The Southwest Mississippi Economic Development Partnership, a non-profit corporation consisting of economic development professionals from 11 counties created in 1993 to market Southwest Mississippi as a region, contracted an independent study two years ago to target specific industries.
The findings revealed a potential in poultry processing, textiles, wood products, manufactured housing, paper boxes and products, fabricated plaster and rubber products, fabricated metal products, machinery and warehousing and distribution, said McLain.
“We’ll talk about the regional target industry study as well as a recent labor market study that we did in conjunction with the University of Southern Mississippi,” said McLain. “The future in economic development will be more regional groups working together and ways we can make that happen.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.