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Inaugural Miss-Lou tourism summit gets rave reviews

WOODVILLE — When Ann Davis was employed at Rosemont Plantation in Wilkinson County near Woodville, she often took stock of the wealth of historic and cultural offerings contained not only in the county, but the surrounding counties and even adjacent Louisiana parishes. She felt that if these offerings were promoted properly, they would prove a tourism boon and put new money in communities’ coffers.

Unfortunately, the communities in this rural region commonly referred to as “Miss-Lou” generally lack the resources to market these offerings to prospective tourists. So, Davis struck on the idea of putting on a regional event that would help communities understand this potential, show them how to secure funding for marketing, explore marketing strategies and determine best management practices.

Last August, Davis, saw her dream become reality with the first Miss-Lou Regional Tourism Summit. Held in Woodville August 9-11, the event brought together community leaders from Southwest Mississippi and East Louisiana as well as personnel from the public sector of both states to exchange ideas and to highlight how tourism-based initiatives can stimulate new economic activity in rural communities scattered across the Miss-Lou region.

“I am very pleased with this first event, and excited about what could come from it,” said Davis, who is now director of the Wilkinson County Extension Service. (The key organizations that put on this first-time summit were Mississippi State University Extension Service, Mississippi Development Authority and LSU AgCenter.) “There is so much potential in this region in terms of tourism. I feel like this is the start of something great.”

Positive buzz

Lake Providence, La., could be the poster child for why the Miss-Lou summit was held. Located in the heart of the largely impoverished Louisiana Delta, the town boasts such historical and cultural gems as the Louisiana Cotton Museum, Byerley House Community and Visitors Center and Ole Dutch Bakery.

However, the city has no budget or formal organization to promote these tourist attractions, according to Sister Karen Flaherty, who came down from St. Louis to aid in economic and community development and was a Miss-Lou summit attendee. She is also a key player in the new Louisiana Delta 65 project, a five-parish effort to promote East Louisiana as a tourism destination. (The Louisiana Delta 65 group has already put its name in the hat as host of future regional summits.)

“I’m very pleased and happy that this regional summit took place,” Flaherty said. “What excites me is that this event was backed and supported on the state level. We need to work together, and the Miss-Lou summit did that. It more than met my expectations.”

Dr. Kay Tettleton, area agent — community rural development at the LSU AgCenter, worked on the Miss-Lou summit since its inception and feels for Flaherty and other rural communities in the region.

“You ride through the Delta, and you think, ‘Oh, my, what poverty,’ and at the same time think, ‘Oh, my, what natural and historical riches.’ These attractions can bring much-needed new money into communities. The best way to do that is work cooperatively. That’s what pleased me the most about the summit — everyone working together.”

Craig Ray, director of the Tourism Division of the Mississippi Development Authority, was equally impressed and enthused by this first event. At the summit, Ray spoke on “The Importance of Regional Partners.”

“The summit reaffirmed what we already know — what is good for East Louisiana is good for Southwest Mississippi and vice versa,” Ray said. “I was very excited about the turnout and response, and I’m excited about the possibilities as we look to market this region.”

Looking ahead

Davis admitted that at first she was somewhat disappointed in the turnout. Hoping for more than 100 attendees, she estimated the crowd at 75-80. However, she said in the end, it allowed for just the right number of people to provide more intimate, one-on-one give and take. And, considering that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita interrupted planning, the turnout was great.

The even greater news was the response. Davis said evaluation summaries from attendees were excellent, and one vote really gave her a boost.

“We put it before the attendees whether or not they wanted to do this again,” she said. “At that time, we were thinking of doing it again in two years. But, they voted unanimously to hold the summit again next year. We were thrilled, and the planning has already begun for 2007.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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