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Pieces in place for big tourism boom in Mississippi

Mary Beth Wilkerson

Mary Beth Wilkerson

But Peavey Electronics founder Hartley Peavey says we must use them


Centuries ago, when villages decided to celebrate something – maybe a successful harvest –  business owners got to thinking.

Folks doing the celebrating are probably going to be hungry, they concluded. So let’s sell them something to eat. They’ll most likely want to have something to help them remember the event, so we’ll have souvenirs and knick-knacks to sell, too.

And if the revelers have enjoyed themselves to the point they might need to stay the night, we can sell them a place to stay.

That, said Mary Beth Wilkerson, is how tourism got its start.

“It became sustainable, and now here we are,” said Wilkerson, director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism.

Wilkerson was one of a handful of speakers to espouse the potential Mississippi and its musical and cultural heritage have in creating a thriving tourism industry.

The latest figures from the MDA, which take in fiscal year 2009, show tourists spent $5.6 billion in Mississippi, and supported 78,000 jobs.

“Cultural tourism is a powerful engine for growth in every community in Mississippi,” Wilkerson told the crowd Thursday at one of the seminars that were a part of the Mississippi Economic Council’s Annual Meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex.

This year’s annual meeting focused on the musical and cultural hotspots Mississippi has, those that are already feeding the tourism industry, and those that need to begin to do so.

The Mississippi Hills Heritage Alliance, which consists of all or parts of 30 counties in Northeast Mississippi, has been working since last March, when President Barack Obama signed legislation granting the state’s hill country status as a National Heritage Area.

“Our objectives are pretty straight forward,” said Bobby King, the Alliance’s director. “We want to preserve and promote our stories. We’re trying to grow jobs and create community impact by selling the stories.”

In 2009, according to King, tourism in the Hills Heritage area generated $800 million in economic impact and supported 14,000 jobs.

On the micro level, the Mississippi Main Street Association works to help communities use the resources they have – infrastructure, historic districts and a community’s reputation, things that serve as a foundation for expanding tourism’s reach in small towns.

“Main Street is the heart of the community, and we have to address that first,” said Jeannie Waller, Main Street director of communications. “Tourism brings people in. Main Street makes people stay.”

Perhaps the most successful of the state’s newer tourism draws is the B.B. King Museum in Indianola. 

“I never dreamed Sunflower County would be a tourist destination,” said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who grew up there. He said he met a couple from England at the opening of the King museum who were spending their honeymoon in the Delta. “They were there because they loved the blues,” Bryant said. “It seems like we’ve had this great discovery before our very eyes, and it’s that we’re living in the birthplace of music.”

The Mississippi Blues Trail and the Mississippi Country Music Trail are two examples of how we’ve grasped the concept that revenue and jobs can pour into the state by taking advantage of our cultural and musical heritage, Bryant said.

Expanding on it, said Hartley Peavey, will take hard work.

“We have an unbelievable opportunity in Mississippi, but only if we’re willing to take the giant steps,” said Peavey, whose Peavey Electronics in Meridian has been an industry leader for 40 years.

One of those giant steps is to offer incentives to artists similar to those the state has offered to advanced manufacturing facilities that have cropped up the past decade.

“We’ve made a start,” Peavey said, referring to the bond bill lawmakers passed earlier in the session that commits nearly $8 million to tourism projects. “If we want to get people in here, we have to give them an incentive. We’ve got to sweeten the pot.

“Branson (Missouri) doesn’t have musical heritage, gaming or the Gulf Coast, and they’re rolling. We have all that, and we’re not using it.”


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