By Jack Weatherly
CLEVELAND — The Bologna Performing Arts Center is a sea of seersucker suits and dresses.
There’s as much cotton in this nearly full 1,170-seat arena on the Delta State University campus as in one of the cotton fields that made the region famous.
Tradition is the watchword for this, the 80th annual meeting of the Delta Council. The Wear Cotton fashion contest winners, men’s and women’s divisions, were selected from the audience.
It might seem that a time warp had been entered. Yet for the second time, a black man was named president of the organization.
Al Rankins Sr., former president of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, was tapped for the job. He follows Dr. Cass Pennington, retired superintendent of education in several Delta school districts, who held the position in 2010.
Rankins was a 20-year veteran of the Greenville Police Department, rising to deputy chief, and has served on the council board and held other positions in the organization. His son, Al Rankins, Jr., is president of Alcorn State University.
The council is an economic development organization, primarily for agriculture and ag-related industries.
Gov. Phil Bryant, who introduced on May 29 the keynote speaker, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, noted that over the years he has learned that “if you want to get something done in the Delta go to the Delta Council.”
The council is a private organization with an annual budget of about $600,000 from membership dues, according to Executive Director Chip Morgan.
Like a chamber of commerce, the council rallies communities across the 18-county area in efforts to gain support for sufficient funding for highways and bridges, education, health and other matters vital to the economic well-being of the region, Morgan said.
Tourism is a relative newcomer on the economic development palette, focusing on the blues heritage.
“I was excited to drive by and see that Grammy Museum coming up” on the Delta State University campus, Bryant said of the $19 million satellite of the Los Angeles museum.
Bryant said the recent passing of B.B. King is “a sad time for all of us, but an exciting time for us to reflect on what an amazing place this has become for tourism.” A viewing of the musician was held later that day at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, with burial Saturday at the museum.
King’s presence was felt at the council gathering.
Outgoing President Walton Gresham III, the third generation in his family to hold that position, called for “a moment of silent meditation for a man known as the King of the Blues, B.B. King” and a Delta teenager who was killed in an auto wreck.
Wicker continued the praise for King.
“Perhaps, no one has helped put this region on the map for tourism more than the late, great B.B. King. We have a world-class facility in the Delta to honor him,” Wicker said.
“It’s up to us to keep this region shining like a National Guitar,” he said, echoing the lyrics of a Paul Simon song, “Graceland.”
Twenty-two million tourists are expected to visit the state this year, Wicker said. Nearly one-fourth of the state’s tourism dollars are spent in the Delta, he added.
Wicker lionized his audience as including “some of the finest farmers in the world,” and cited a statistic on the agriculture industry’s contribution to the nation.
“Americans spend less of their disposable income on food and fiber than any country in the world,” Wicker said. When the council was formed in 1935, he said, Americans spent 44 percent of their disposable income on food and clothing, compared with 16 percent today.
He struck a protective note when he said he is among those fighting the Obama administration’s proposed Waters of the United States Rule that would expand federal control of small streams, including ditches and ponds on farmlands.
Also, he said that he and Mississippi’s senior senator, Thad Cochran, also a Republican, are still fighting for applying “the same safety precautions that we use here” to imports of catfish from Southeast Asia. The domestic catfish industry, which is dominated by Mississippi, has shrunk dramatically in recent years.
On a brighter note, he observed that Mississippi State University will soon be home of the National Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which will allow the agricultural industry to take advantage of global positioning satellites and unmanned aircraft for enhanced imagery to gather data for farmers.
“It will be only a matter of time before the precision-ag industry takes a quantum leap, with Mississippi . . . in the lead.”