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Statistical reports released at meeting show some improvement, some room for it

Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi

What does the teen birth rate have to do with economic development?

A lot, according to the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi (CFNEM), which addressed this and other issues during the Sixth Annual State of the Region Meeting.

CFNEM was established in 1995 to assess the issues of Northeast Mississippi and come up with strategies. At least two leaders from 16 counties, which include Pontotoc, Lafayette, Tishomingo, Calhoun, Lee, Tippah, Alcorn, Prentiss, Itawamba, Monroe, Union, Oktibbeha, Marshall, Clay, Benton and Chickasaw, come together on a quarterly basis to assist with regional cooperation and communication. At the annual meeting, held May 24, CFNEM released statistical reports on the quality of life in Northeast Mississippi on a regional and county by county basis. The reports included economics, education, health, social statistics, public safety and infrastructure topics.

“It gives you the opportunity to see what you’re doing in a six-year period,” said Morgan Baldwin, director of programs for CREATE, which funds CFNEM. CREATE stands for Christian Research Education Action Technical Expertise.

Baldwin said of all the statistics released in the report, one sticks out more than any other — births to single teens. That number jumped to 928 in 2000, an increase of about 112 births to single teens in the region since 1996.

While things may look glum, Baldwin said the purpose of the reports is not to cause people anguish but to entice them to make improvements in the future.

“Within the last year you’ve seen all these reports that teen pregnancy numbers were down,” Baldwin said. “We were reporting those numbers like everyone else, but the fact is that our numbers aren’t down. They’re up. Without a report like this, we’d never know where we actually stood.”

The educational statistics reflected some improvement over the five-year period from 1996 to 2001. Northeast Mississippi counties reported a 77.36% graduation rate in 1996 as opposed to 80.10% in 2001. Pontotoc County, with a graduation rate of 99%, had the highest rate of any county in the region, followed by Lafayette with 92% and Tishomingo with 91%. The lowest graduation rates were in Clay, with 69%, Benton with 69%, and Chickasaw with 58%.

Baldwin said putting together the reports is a signal to industry and others that Northeast Mississippi is putting the time and effort into planning for its future.

“We’re willing to look at realistic numbers that show where we are and set goals as to where we want to be,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes it’s hard to look at the real numbers but you have to be realistic about your community. And as far as the goals that were set, we met more than 50% of the goals that were set five years ago. That’s pretty impressive. The numbers we have in Northeast Mississippi are not all bad numbers.”

Baldwin pointed to economic statistics, which showed per capita income increase from $14,240 in 1996 to $16,994 in 2001. The unemployment rate in the region also dropped from 7.2% in 1996 to 5.9% in 2001.

“But in order to continue that prosperity we want to make sure all of our numbers start moving in the right direction,” Baldwin said.

Bobby P. Martin, chairman of the CREATE Foundation Board and president of The People’s Bank in Ripley, compared the information in the county reports to financial statements.

“Some of the information is good, some is bad,” Martin said. “But we have to take the good and build on it and improve on the negative. We’re not trying to paint any rosy pictures. We’re trying to let everyone know they need to go to work or start bragging.”

Martin considers the reports released at the annual meeting to be tools communities can use to better the entire region.

“This has really brought the counties close together,” Martin said.

Tim Weston, executive director of the Itawamba County Development Council and Port, said CREATE has been the catalyst that has made the issues of community and economic development into regional issues.

“The quote that we use a lot and I think a lot of economic developers do, is that a rising tide raises all ships,” Weston said. “That doesn’t stop at county borders. We’re all going to be better off if we work together.”

The sixth annual meeting brought more economic developers, businessmen, county and city officials and other important community members in Northeast Mississippi together than any past annual meeting. About 500 were in attendance. Baldwin expects even more will choose to participate next year.

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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