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Major newsmakers converge on Mississippi in 2006

Backstage Pass

When I called to congratulate Mississippi Development Authority tourism director Craig Ray on landing the 98th annual meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) in 2006, he chuckled, “How do you like me now?”

I think the Mississippi business community would concur: “very much, thanks for a job well done.”

The high-profile, prestigious annual meeting of major newsmakers will provide much more than an economic boost of $500,000 to $750,000 in tourism dollars for the state. The publicity generated worldwide will be invaluable to putting to rest some misperceptions about Mississippi. Landing such a major event coincides nicely with Blueprint Mississippi’s mission to improve the image of the state.

Yes, there was trouble here in the 1960s, but that was a generation ago and we’ve made progress. Let’s move on. Yes, we’re accustomed to laughing at the same lame jokes about Mississippi being presumably backward. After all, we Southerners have been schooled in gracious hospitality. But while we’re smiling with a twinkle in our eyes, we’re calculating types. We’re patient. And we know the NGA event is a great opportunity to show the world Mississippi now.

We’ll have about 1,200 visitors, including 55 governors, their families and staff. There’ll be representatives from state government, federal government agencies, the White House, and the private sector. As host governor, Haley Barbour has dibs on a few more invitees. If we’re lucky, the President — George Bush or John Kerry? — will attend. About 300 media types will provide round-the-clock coverage.

Finding out that Mississippi landed the event was a reminder of how much fun it’s been to watch the governor call in favors. The NGA, a bipartisan collection of governors from the 50 states, the territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands and the commonwealths of the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico, is one of the most respected public policy organizations in Washington, D.C., where Barbour reigned three-fold: as director of the White House Office of Political Affairs under the late President Ronald Reagan, as two-term chief of the Republican National Committee and as founder, chairman and CEO of Barbour Griffith & Rogers, which Fortune magazine named the nation’s top lobbying firm.

At the NGA annual meeting July 17-19 in Seattle, Wash., the nine-governor selection committee, of which Barbour is not a member, voted by paper ballot on the selection of Mississippi in 2006. Was it a coincidence the magnolia state was selected after 69 years? Doubtful.

However, hosting the NGA meeting didn’t come without a price tag. Part of the bidding process required a financial commitment by the state to pay for certain parts of the conference, such as social activities and security measures.

In Seattle, about $1 million cash and $800,000 in in-kind donations were raised to cover expenses and it will probably cost about the same in Mississippi.

Keep in mind, though, that the NGA held a news conference in Seattle in front of the Space Needle that was beamed to millions of households around the world. The meeting itself was live on C-Span, watched regularly by an estimated 34.5 million people, or one in five cable subscribers. The value of such publicity? Priceless.

Ray, who will serve as the main liaison between the governor’s office and the NGA, has already powwowed with NGA executives, reviewing pages of checklists required to initiate the planning process. Within the next three months, an executive director will be hired to focus on the event on a daily basis, and will build a staff to support those efforts. A governor-appointed statewide committee will help formulate fundraising events.

The event has been scheduled for July 2006 in Biloxi, but the dates and venues have not yet been finalized. Beau Rivage will likely provide most of the hotel rooms; Grand Casino Biloxi will probably pick up the balance. NGA officials will visit the Gulf Coast in October to pin down all sites, including media headquarters for the event.

I’ve been told that the character of the NGA annual meetings has changed dramatically over the years. They used to be fun, jam-packed with social events, a real hoopla. Now the annual conference more closely resembles a meeting of workaholics anonymous, filled with policy meetings and work sessions.

Let’s hope there’s time for us to show off the new Mississippi. Our visitors could view test firings of a space shuttle main engine at the Stennis Space Center, or watch Nissan vehicles by the truckload leave what will probably soon be rated the world’s most efficient automotive assembly plant.

Or how about rolling through our casinos and leaving behind some money? That’d be nice. Thanks, y’all.

Lynne W. Jeter writes regularly on business travel and the business of travel for the Mississippi Business Journal.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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