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MDA tourism chief Craig Ray has several irons in fire to attract tourism dollars

Marketing Mississippi: NASCAR may come to Tunica

He`s been on the job for less than three months, yet Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) tourism director D. Craig Ray is hitting home runs for the $6-billion industry.

Even though some projects were in the works before Ray joined MDA, such as the Atlanta Braves Double-A franchise that will be moving to Pearl next season, he has been racking up highway miles traversing the state and aggressively reeling in experts to bring major nationally televised events to Mississippi.

“Craig came to Tunica last month and spent several days with us, and after touring Tunica National (Golf and Tennis Club), he`s the one who got Gene Scott, editor and publisher of Tennis Week magazine, to agree to come down in May and see what we need to do to not only get an ATP stop here, but also help us determine other ways to use the facility, maybe for a Davis Cup down the road,” said Lynne Boyd, public relations manager of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).

The $12-million Tunica National Golf and Tennis Club, featuring four Hydro-Grid Har-Tru indoor clay courts – the only courts of its kind in the South – opened several months ago; the grand opening will take place May 18. Scott, founder of Tennis Week, the game`s most influential publication with a readership of 388,000, ranked among the top 10 tennis players in the world in the 1970s. A well-respected ambassador for tennis, Scott had a hand in the creation of the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, a popular stop on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tour.

“We’re still brainstorming, but we’re at the table with the right people,” said Ray. “On that plan, we’re moving along.”

Ray and Tunica CVB director Webster Franklin are in discussions with NASCAR officials about bringing a NASCAR track to Tunica, which would immediately boost tourism in the Mississippi Delta. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans are NASCAR fans. Of that total, 38% are women, 53% work in professional, managerial, or skilled labor positions and the median yearly total income of a family of race fans is above $50,000.

“They’re in the research and development phase now to see if the community could support it, and determining where the track could be built,” said Ray. “They’ve already met with NASCAR officials, and are moving in the right direction.”

When Ray spoke to the Laurel Rotary Club earlier in April about events and attractions the state might land, the men in the audience perked up when he mentioned NASCAR.

“At the end of my talk, I asked for questions and the first one was, ‘Craig, could you expound on that NASCAR possibility?’ It would definitely be a great attraction to have,” said Ray.

On April 14, MDA kicked off a marketing campaign, “Mississippi … It`s Your State … Go See It,” promoting Mississippi to Mississippians via 16 radio and eight television stations across the state. The $200,000 promotional series will run through May 9 and will feature antebellum mansions, Civil War battlefields, casinos, golf courses, and beaches along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On May 12, five trips across the state, including lodging, meals, $30 in gas and tickets to various attractions, will be given away.

“We’re hitting it hard among our own people,” said Franklin. “When I’m in Tunica, I’m telling people about the Gulf Coast. When I’m on the Gulf Coast, I’m telling people about Vicksburg and Natchez. Wherever I am in different parts of the state, I’m promoting Mississippi. Mississippians are our best salesmen.”

From April 19-25, the nation watched the speedboat race, “Smokin’ the Sound,” on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, sponsored by the state and televised by ESPN on the Gulf Coast. It represented the first run on a three-year contract.

“We’re very excited about that race,” said Ray. “I think it`s going to develop into a major sporting event.”

Ray hopes the Mississippi Gulf Coast will land the 2005 Inc. 500 awards convention, which honors the nation`s 500 fastest-growing private companies. Started in 1982, the Inc. 500 ranks the nation`s leading entrepreneurial firms according to sales growth over the previous five years. Former Inc. 500 companies that have become household names include Microsoft, Oracle, CompUSA, Gateway, Timberland, Domino`s Pizza and Patagonia.

“We’re in competition with several other states for the 2005 convention,” said Ray. “It`s a very prestigious economic development convention, and really opens a lot of opportunity with attending companies, who will hopefully look to bring business to the state. We’re just glad to be in the hunt.”

Also in the works: the Miss USA pageant, with organizers looking to book the event in Mississippi in 2005 or 2006.

The state is also a candidate for the prestigious 2006 National Governors Association Conference in Tunica or on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“It`s down to four or five states in the selection process,” said Ray. “Their selection team will probably visit (soon).”

Marketing Mississippi to national organizations has been easy, said Ray.

“Look at the Braves organization,” he said. “They came into the Jackson community after looking at business opportunities and quality of life issues. They wanted a nice home for the players they’re grooming for the national leagues to raise their families. They really liked what they saw.”

The Braves Double-A affiliate has been located in Greenville, S.C., since January 1984, and had previously been located in Austin, Texas (1966-67), Shreveport, La., (1968-1970), and Savannah, Ga. (1971-83). A division of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., the Atlanta Braves is Major League Baseball`s winningest franchise since 1991, earning a record 12 consecutive division championships, five National League pennants and a World Series title. Based in Atlanta since 1966, the Braves franchise is the longest continuously operating franchise in Major League Baseball.

“Getting the Atlanta Braves farm team was a major coup for the state,” said Ray. “I’m happy for the people who worked on that project for so long. I got to come in at the very end and meet the Braves officials and help show them the town. The Braves organization is first-class, and to have them associated with this state for a 20-year commitment is really exciting.”

Mississippi`s progressiveness has impressed many key players, said Ray.

“When I approached my friend at Tennis Week, he was pleasantly surprised to learn what Tunica had to offer,” he said. “Gene hasn`t seen what`s there, and thought it was great that Mississippi might become a new tennis destination.

“A lot of exciting things are happening in the state. We’re all a little anxious about seeing where the actual budget ends up, and that will help us determine how to prepare for our planning going forward.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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