From his perspective of 10 years as director of long-range planning for the Center for Policy Research and Planning at the state’s Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), Pete Walley has observed a dearth of planning activity in Mississippi.
He quotes a favorite saying that goes “People will act completely rational and normal once they’ve exhausted all other possibilities.”
“I’m trying to get the system to think about long-range planning. We can throw out ideas and think about them,” he said. “What do you want the education system to look like?”
Walley invites a look back at two decisions made in the 1800s that have greatly affected the state’s higher education system. Those decisions, short sighted in his viewpoint, were locating the University of Mississippi at Oxford and locating Mississippi State University at Starkville.
“Down the road 100 years later, those towns are not at the center of the populations. They’re not a DeSoto County or a Gulf Coast,” he says. “Had people taken off their blinders and thought longer than five years out, it would have been better.”
He feels the state has the talent to think and plan long range, but not the mindset. “It’s a mindset with our people that says, ‘I’m not interested in looking that far out,’ and it’s the time limit of four-year terms in politics that drives elected officials,” he said. “Since we’ve drawn this geographic boundary for Mississippi, let’s look out for the best interests of the whole state. The Coast is building momentum, population wise, and the rest of the state should join in to help it.”
That short-term thinking is also driving the Coast’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina, Walley believes. “There are well-intentioned people who think they’re looking down the road, but in the heat of battle they’re not really thinking it through,” he said. “They’re building roads and houses; short-term responses are driving the recovery. It’s the nature of responding to emergencies.”
His opinion is that the coastal counties have the state’s best chance to be the population centers in the future. “In the United States, 60% of the population lives close to large bodies of water, and that includes the Great Lakes,” he said. “Our Coast has all the amenities and has a large population center on each side.”
In the six coastal counties, Walley finds a free market hand working although a large chunk of people don’t have access to vital information that’s driving the recovery. He says high-rise developers see the area as their last chance for affordable, undeveloped land and will obtain the information necessary to build their projects.
Describing himself as a gadfly, Walley says his job is to read and put things in perspective for the state. He stresses planning that looks far into the future, but notes that change comes slowly to the Magnolia State.
“The regional concept of economic development is just catching on in Mississippi,” he said. “It took courage for the three counties in North Mississippi — Pontotoc, Union and Lee — to form an organization to get things done. They have been successful and now others are emulating them.”
Walley has no crystal ball but does look toward the future. “The fundamental way we make our living is structurally changing,” he said. “In the 1900s, the agrarian society changed to industrialization, and then we went to a manufacturing base. It’s now changing again to a knowledge-based economy.”
What does this shift really mean to the state? “We’ve got to reduce our dropout rate from 40 %, and we need to increase the numbers who graduate from college. People can not function without some education,” he said. “Dr. Hank Bounds has the right idea with his concept to teach more job skills in high school. We need to increase those programs.”
The state has come a long way, but still ranks 50th among the states in income and other factors. Globalization in the marketplace is a fact of life, and we must position ourselves to take advantage of it.
“Things are changing. I know a lawyer who is using a doctor in India as an expert witness in a case because it’s less costly and it’s possible with technology,” Walley said. “The playing field is getting level, and in this country we don’t have a lock on high-paying jobs anymore.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.