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Community meetings in local communities during June 13-17

Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance presenting findings

Traditionally, economic development has been defined by images of manufacturing plants, industrial parks and the competitive recruitment of large corporate entities to local communities.

While all of those elements are important components of economic vitality in the Northeast Mississippi region, so is diversification. That’s why community and economic development leaders are increasingly recognizing tourism’s significance in economic development efforts. An upcoming series of presentations June 13-17 in six Northeast Mississippi communities will underscore the relevance of heritage tourism via “Building the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area: Strategies for Success.”

Since late 2002, a group of Northeast Mississippi civic leaders has been working on the development of a cohesive heritage tourism strategy for the region that is beginning to take shape, thanks to support from advocates such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and CREATE Foundation of Tupelo. Last year, CREATE embraced the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area as a special project, and co-sponsored the Northeast Mississippi Heritage Tourism Summit in conjunction with the University of Mississippi. At that time, the initial Concept Plan for the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area was introduced.

Presenting the findings

Subsequently, ARC awarded CREATE $10,000 to conduct an initial economic impact study for the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area. CREATE provided the $10,000 match needed to secure the investment of federal dollars. Phil Walker of The Walker Collaborative in Nashville will conduct six presentations covering the key findings of the study and other topics during “Mississippi Hills Heritage Week 2005” June 13-17 on the following dates:

• Starkville Railroad Depot, Starkville — 3 p.m. Monday, June 13.

• Columbus CVB, Columbus — 10 a.m. Tuesday, June 14.

• Carpenter Room, CREATE Foundation, Tupelo — 3 p.m., Tuesday, June 14.

• Civil War Interpretive Center, Corinth — 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 15.

• Oxford Convention Center, Oxford — 1:30 p.m., Thursday, June 16.

• City Hall, Holly Springs — 6 p.m., Thursday, June 16.
Individuals who are interested in attending may contact Kent Bain with the Mississippi Hills Heritage Alliance at alliance@dixie-net.com or kentbain@yahoo.com, or call (662) 287-4006 for more information. Although there is no fee to attend, reservations are encouraged.

Educating local leaders

Bain, who serves as Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance coordinator, said that the presentations are designed to educate elected officials, community organizations, the business community and the public on how regional communities can tap into the expanding national heritage tourism market by their involvement with the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area.

“We hope that the meetings will be informative in demonstrating the economic development benefits of heritage tourism,” Bain said. “We want people to familiarize themselves with the project.”

Bain noted that many communities in the Northeast Mississippi region face similar challenges in developing heritage tourism efforts. Specifically, Bain said that communities may be fortunate to have a rich history and interesting stories, but a lack of funding or manpower may prevent them from fully developing a comprehensive heritage strategy. Bain stressed that the regional approach is aimed at providing a viable framework so that individual communities are not operating in a vacuum.

“We don’t want to promote Northeast Mississippi as a region, we want to function as a region,” Bain noted.

Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president at CREATE Foundation, stressed the importance of taking a “broader view of economic development.”

“We’ve been supportive of the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance and have been working closely with them as we recognize the increasing importance of diversified economic development strategies for the region,” Whitfield observed.

A national experience

As defined by the National Park Service, a “National Heritage Area” is a place designated by Congress where natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources combine to form a nationally distinctive landscape rising from human patterns shaped by geography. The patterns make these areas reflective of the so-called “national experience.” Bain said that the group is considering the possibility of such a designation.

In terms of attributes, the region has many, according to Bain. The Natchez Trace Parkway and its nature-based resources are a plus, as well as Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, Holly Springs and Tombigbee National Forests, the Tenn-Tom Waterway and a host of state parks and wildlife management areas. The Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo, the Tennessee Williams House in Columbus and William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak in Oxford are also notable from a national perspective.

The region also possesses a nationally significant Civil War heritage in the battles of Corinth and Brices Crossroads and in the Van Dorn raids in Holly Springs. Moreover, the Mississippi Hills are home to many historic towns with intriguing courthouse squares, railroad depots and cemeteries, according to Bain.

Bain noted the continued progression of the effort. Last June, Walker conducted six local stakeholder meetings, a heritage area conference and a concept plan during Heritage Week 2004.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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