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Education, community cooperation keys to economic success

While economic fluctuations come and go, and some sectors are faring better than others, one message was clear at the 2008 Northeast Mississippi Economic Forecast Conference in Tupelo on January 24: education and community cooperation are core components of proactive economic development efforts.

“We — you — have created an economy that is a fabric of diverse companies and industries, supported by strong public schools and strong community colleges and colleges that are connected to each other by a sense of common purpose and a mutual respect for the belief that a rising tide lifts all things,” said Jack Reed Jr., president of R.W. Reed Co. and 2007-2008 chairman of the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation.

In preparing for his presentation on current economic trends in Northeast Mississippi, Reed said he visited with local bankers, financial consultants, healthcare administrators and physicians, attorneys, local automobile dealers, furniture store owners and manufacturers, human resource professionals, Realtors, restaurateurs, developers and other retailers to gauge their assessment of the area’s economic climate.

Seeing the connections

“In trying to synthesize their various connections, one conclusion jumped out at me: Our community is blessed with exceptional business and professional men and women who have common sense — who have experienced enough ups and downs — whose judgment is worth listening to,” Reed said.

Reed was one of four speakers slated at the annual conference sponsored by several banking institutions, Journal Publishing Company and the Community Development Foundation. Others included Phil Hardwick of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University; Martha Layne Collins, a former governor and current chair/CEO of the Kentucky World Trade Center; and Tom DeFrank, Washington Bureau chief of the New York Daily News.

As one would expect, Toyota was a topic of discussion, given the company’s decision to locate an automobile assembly plant in Blue Springs, west of Tupelo. Reed noted that Toyota’s decision has had a tremendous impact on “the optimism of our community” and underscores the work ethic and culture of cooperation within the region.

Former Kentucky governor Martha Layne Collins expanded on that theme, relating her state’s experience working with Toyota.

She stressed that the region must keep looking ahead from an economic development standpoint for “the next company, the next diverse thing.” She added that the cumulative effect of doing many things right — such as taking care of existing industry and keeping a focus on education — goes a long way in making an area attractive. She said that when she was governor, education was her top priority with economic development being her second. “They go hand in hand,” she observed.

Closing the income gap

Hardwick noted that there may be a trend toward slower growth statewide this year. In discussing what he called a “clustered economy” in which 50 percent of the jobs are in 11 counties, Hardwick said that Northeast Mississippi was holding its own and among those areas experiencing growth. Like other speakers, Hardwick reiterated the importance of an educated work force and how education serves as a key component in closing Mississippi’s income gap with the rest of the nation.

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