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What happens when folks visit - and stay?

From the Ground Up

A CEO is more likely to open a new facility in a state that he or she knows something about than one the executive is less familiar with.

Tourism is one of the best ways to introduce new visitors to a state. The arts also have a strong economic impact on a community.

Those three statements are backed by strong research. The Alabama Economic Development Partnership conducted a study that revealed the first conclusion mentioned above, and the Mississippi Arts Commission had a study that revealed the last one.

The middle is backed up by many studies and just plain common sense.

This is the story of a man whose relationship with Mississippi is embodied in all three of the statements.

In 1986 Phil Sharper left New York to come to the Magnolia State to dance with Ballet Mississippi. Because of the International Ballet Competition lots of people came to Mississippi in 1986. Phil stayed on a while before moving back to the Big Apple. However, Mississippi would not leave his mind.

“I left the state deeply impressed by two things: the people and the land. I found inspiration here, my two muses of dance and writing hovering close. It was also here that began the spiritual practice I carry out to this day. I felt an inexplicable connection,” he said.

He felt drawn back to Mississippi and a vision for a dance studio, then a writer’s retreat, and then a cultural/educational center. He returned to Mississippi in the following summers and searched all over the state for the right piece of land. He would go back to New York to his teaching job and his dancing career, always thinking about his vision in Mississippi. He met and married his best friend, Fazeela, who added her input.

In August of 1997 he finally found the place he was looking for. Located amid the rolling hills not far from New Hebron, it was the perfect site. He purchased 35 acres, a place where his dream would become reality. He named it the New Walden Writer’s Retreat and Center for Global Value Creation in the 21st Century.

Part of the mission statement reads, “In a simple and natural setting, New Walden will nature artistic expression – both individual and collaborative – to fulfill personal aspirations and bridge gaps of region, class, age, gender, and ethnicity in order to create value for the 21st century.”

New Walden will include a central lodge building for the writer’s retreat and conference center as well as outlying cabins. There will also be trails and outside spaces, “where guests can work and relax in an inspiring environment.”

In 1999 the project received an Arts Based Community Development grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. During New Walden ‘99 a weekend writing workshop was held and four local schools were visited by a team of writing teachers, storytellers and a choral director. All fifth-grade students attended two arts-related workshops. The workshop was a success and was embraced by the local area. Paul McLain, III, director of the Lawrence County Community Development Association, recognized the potential of New Walden and assisted with the logistics of not only the event, but the long-term planning of the center.

Two weeks ago, another annual event was held, featuring a writer’s workshop, an outdoor banquet and a tribute to New Hebron mystery writer, Neil McGaughey. It was made possible in part by a grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council. It was also a success.

Phil is now back in New York teaching English and dancing, but getting closer to moving to Mississippi where he can manage the construction of the center. The New Hebron community is welcoming him and supporting his effort. It won’t be long before it is a reality.

The point of this story is to illustrate what can happen when people visit Mississippi and want to live here. The economic studies can give us a good idea of how much a visitor spends and what economic impact an event may have in the short run. But what can’t be accurately measured is the long-term impact that happens when a visitor moves to Mississippi a decade later and begins creating value.

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.


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