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CREATE group cites economic development, educational stats

Meeting outlines trends, challenges, recommendations

Tupelo — While it’s easy to say that education is vital to economic development, doing something about it is another thing.

While the 16-county Northeast Mississippi region has made a number of strides in recent years, it still has a lot of work to be tackled in achieving desired educational and economic development goals, according to CREATE’s Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi.

Citing statistics ranging from educational attainment levels to per capita income to the breakout of regional employment, CREATE Foundation senior vice president Lewis Whitfield told attendees of the commission’s May 26 “State of the Region” meeting in Tupelo that the area is trailing the state and/or nation in some key educational and economic categories.

Per capita income for the Northeast Mississippi region in 2000 averaged $19,981, which fell below Mississippi’s $20,900, and the nation’s $29,469 according to statistics from the Rural Policy Research Institute cited by Whitfield. Northeast Mississippi’s poverty rate was 17.9% which was better than the state’s 19.9% but unfavorable in comparison to the nation’s 12.4% rate.

While Northeast Mississippi enjoys a reputation for progressiveness, it was clear from statistics cited during the meeting that education requires additional attention.

Surprisingly, only about 9.5% of the region’s population attained a bachelor’s degree, according to the figures presented at the meeting, compared to 11.1% for Mississippi and 15.5% for the nation. Moreover, only 4.9% of Northeast Mississippians possessed an associate’s degree compared to 5.7% in Mississippi and 6.3% in the United States. In the graduate/professional degree attainment category, Northeast Mississippi also lagged: it recorded 5.6% compared to the state’s 5.8% and the nation’s 8.9%.

Making it happen

“Education is critical to our economic development,” Whitfield stressed. “People have been saying that for years, but we really need to make it happen.”

The impact of manufacturing was also discussed during the State of the Region meeting. Research presented by the commission revealed that the Northeast Mississippi regional economy — once dependent on agriculture — relies heavily on manufacturing, which dominates the economies of 14 of the area’s 16 counties. While manufacturing has been the main engine driving the region’s economy, it was noted that manufacturing jobs are declining as a percentage of total jobs in the region as a result of foreign competition and technological innovations. Not surprisingly, the commission stressed that future manufacturing jobs will require a better educated and trained workforce.

In terms of recommendations moving forward, the commission reported that total emphasis on industrial recruitment must give way to the development of a mixed economy and economic development organizations should no longer be judged solely on how many factory jobs are added to the local economy.

Additionally, more emphasis must be placed on public education at all levels to ensure a quality workforce — a point reiterated by Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson during his presentation on the agenda. The commission recommended that the region find better ways to utilize the resources of community colleges and universities, while emphasizing leadership development and regional cooperation.

‘Comprehensive’ is key

On a positive note, speaker Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, complimented the region by noting that his center looks to Northeast Mississippi for good ideas for use in North Carolina.

While providing an overview of his organization, he also shared his four-piece “silver bullet” strategy for economic development: committed leadership across all sectors of the community; a concrete economic development program for everyone, not just selected segments; full communication among all parties; and “real” partnerships.

“Economic development is about comprehensive economic development,” Hall stressed. “It’s not just about manufacturing, it’s about the healthcare facility down the road, the downtown businesses, the county and so on. If everyone doesn’t come together, you won’t have economic development.”

During the meeting, the commission was also recognized for its 10th year of service to the region.

“We have come a long way in thinking regionally, but as we get more and more involved, we realize that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface,” said CREATE Foundation president Mike Clayborne.

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

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