CLARKSDALE — In an effort to boost tourism, the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) met with leaders from Mississippi and Memphis June 16 in Clarksdale to begin developing a comprehensive plan to market the Delta region.
“We think this project is going to be very successful,” said DRA federal co-chair Pete Johnson. “There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about the Delta Regional Authority working with state and local governments to channel various dollars and complement everyone’s efforts to focus on tourism in the region…to help develop that as a key part of the economy. This meeting was the first step in the planning process, and we see great things happening.”
Tourism is one of the largest industries in America, generating $174 billion in payroll, employing nearly eight million people and accounting for one in seven U.S. jobs. In 2002, domestic and international travelers spent $545.5 billion in the U.S. travel industry, including international passenger fares. A year earlier, TIA Travel Forecast Facts had predicted “a strong future in tourism, especially for destinations offering a consistently compelling, distinctive, and diverse experience. Despite current economic and industry challenges, domestic trips are expected to grow an average of 21% a year over the next three years.”
“Tourism is a huge industry, second only to healthcare,” said Johnson, “so we’re exploring the many different tourism opportunities in the region.”
Last year, tourists spent $2.7 billion in the Mississippi Delta. Tunica County, the nation’s third-largest gaming destination, received $43.4 million in gaming tax revenue in 2003. With nine casinos, Tunica recently added a new river park, championship public golf course and expanded the arena and exposition center. Grand Casino Tunica announced in May the construction of a water park, the first in the area. Tunica Airport was expanded last year to accommodate corporate aircraft, and is in the final phase of expansion to accommodate small-bodied commercial aircraft, beginning next spring.
At the roundtable discussion last week, tourism and marketing experts, including Viking Range CEO and Mississippi Blues Commission chairman Fred Carl Jr., four representatives from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), a representative from the U.S. Department of the Interior and a representative from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, focused on how to better develop tourism throughout DRA’s region. A week earlier, Johnson had met with MDA tourism director Craig Ray and Performa CEO John Elkington to discuss strategies. Elkington’s projects include Beale Street in Memphis and Farish Street in Jackson.
“We’re seeing how groups like Travel South are making an effort to regionalize tourism, and we think it’s a good idea,” said Ray, who was in Europe on a sales mission for MDA and could not attend the official meeting. “By regionalizing efforts, we’re not duplicating efforts. If we determine the gray areas, we can work together. I think it’s a great idea because we all want more tourists and for them to stay longer. If we tap into federal dollars and spread them around the region, that’s even better.”
Webster Franklin, executive director of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “Anytime a group of this nature sits down and talks about tourism, it tells me the industry has grown in its importance to the economy of the overall area. I’m not sure you would have seen that 10 years ago in the Delta or the Memphis area.”
The “First Step” meeting was scheduled after Gov. Haley Barbour and business leaders in Memphis asked Johnson to “quarterback” the conference. The agenda included:
• Identifying key contacts related to tourism and state marketing;
• Incorporating the contacts into a task force;
• Establishing a system for examining the state’s plans and tourism opportunities;
• Obtaining the state’s goals, plans, resources, facts and other relevant data;
• Analyzing information and detail-specific areas for additional support and promotion by DRA; and
• Synthesizing the analyses and establishing an overall plan for the DRA footprint in Mississippi and Memphis, which includes a plan for attracting and educating visitors about the DRA region and its offerings.
“There were many issues that needed to be addressed going into this meeting,” said Franklin. “We have a transportation problem, and we have an exposure problem. If we can begin to tackle those two issues collectively as a region, we will have made great strides.”
First up: planning a tourism campaign around the region’s blues heritage, civil rights history, civil war history, eco-tourism, Native American heritage and the arts, including establishing a Blues Trail from Chicago to Selma, Ala., and through Mississippi.
“There are so many great stories that need to be told,” said Johnson. “For example, few people know that Johnny Rivers’ blues song, ‘Midnight Special,’ was written about Parchman. Every Saturday night, the inmates got cleaned up because their families were going to visit on Sunday by train. According to this tale, the inmate who saw the train light first was going to be the next one paroled. That’s what the lyric line, ‘Midnight Special, let your light shine on me,’ was all about.”
Johnson said the tourism study is not related to a recent Arkansas State University study on the role that African-Americans play in tourism, funded by a Ford Foundation grant.
“The Delta Regional Authority could certainly serve as a vehicle for a foundation grant,” said Johnson. “Even though it’s premature to say federal dollars would be available, we think a comprehensive plan would create the vehicle to apply for funding levels. However, there’s a huge opportunity to involve the private sector — companies like Coca-Cola, Budweiser and First Tennessee — in the process to develop this untapped source.”
Congress established the Delta Regional Authority in 2000 as a federal-state partnership to channel aid for economic development to 240 counties/parishes in eight states, including Mississippi, where the Delta is marked by poverty, illiteracy and limited access to healthcare.
“In situations like this, moving forward all boils down to money,” said Franklin. “Hopefully through the Delta Regional Authority, there will be access to federal dollars that will allow us to tackle that transportation issue and perhaps have more advertising in markets where people are more likely to visit this area. If that can take place, progress can happen in a hurry. If we don’t have the money to do it, it could take a while.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.