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Hattiesburg Downtown ArtWalk.

Beacon of Tourism: Hattiesburg the third most visited city in Mississippi

By JULIA MILLER

When it comes to becoming a beacon of tourism, a lot of factors have to mix just right. Marlo Dorsey, who took over the reins at VisitHATTIESBURG last fall, said all those elements have come together in the Hub City to create one of the fastest growing tourism market in the state.

Long Leaf Trace

“We have a good mix of indoor and outdoor activities,” she said. “It’s a fun loving community.”

From family-friendly activities to prospective students to adults, Hattiesburg has met the call to appeal to people in all stages of life.

“There’s live music and antique shops,” she said. “There’s that innovative vibe of artists and musicians because we are a university town.”

One unique aspect is the ability to take in a symphony at one of the universities one night, hit a jazz club the next, and then hear a bluegrass musician.

“At any given point, you can step in and see that live music,” she said.

Dorsey said some of the most recent changes have come in the downtown area. They recently passed a Go Cup ordinance which allows people to walk within the designated district with adult beverages. It allows people to take in the sights and sounds. With more al fresco dining and a new system of string lights, that area is seeing a new atmosphere take shape.

“We have a lot of new elements to enhance our local culture,” Dorsey said. “What we’ve seen is a renaissance of music.”

Dorsey also credited the entrepreneurial spirit of the community for the growth the city has seen.

“Robert St. John owns several restaurants in the area; he could live anywhere,” she said. “It’s known as Hub City for a reason. It’s a natural meeting place.”

Dorsey said Hattiesburg is halfway between Houston and Atlanta, a 17-hour trip one way, and halfway between Dallas and Destin, an 11-hour trip.

“It’s a natural overnight stay,” she said. “We’re not just a stop; we’re a significant stop.”

One of the big changes with the tourism office has been an updated website. It creates an integrated platform for locals and visitors. Whether you’re looking for events this weekend or planning a getaway a month from now, the website allows everything to be found easily. Suggested themed itineraries have been added.

“We wanted to present Hattiesburg in a new, fresh way,” she said. “We’ve turned the website into a virtual visitor welcome center.”

Dorsey sees her job as an opportunity to tell Hattiesburg’s story and to show they are a welcoming community.

“We celebrate our artists, and we love our visitors,” she said.

As for her own path, Dorsey moved to Mississippi in 1995 fresh from college. She previously worked in tourism and economic development marketing at the state level through Mississippi Development Authority and Visit Mississippi. Before being chosen as Executive Director, she worked as director of economic development marketing and communications at VisitHATTIESBURG and Hattiesburg Convention Commission.

Dorsey first moved to Hattiesburg as a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“You get integrated in the community,” she said. “It definitely made it a place I wanted to stay. We love Mississippi. We love Hattiesburg. Our family wanted to stay put.”

Dorsey started Oct. 1 after long-time Executive Director Rick Taylor stepped aside in June.

Hattiesburg is the third most visited city in Mississippi with 1.8 million visitors in 2016. More than a third of those visitors each year are from out of state. Tourism in 2016 added $278 million to the local economy.

Hattiesburg boasts more than 200 locally owned restaurants, a zoo that has more than 100 species, the Longleaf Trace, top-quality youth sports facilities and a choice of museums and galleries. Hattiesburg is expected to have more than 3,000 hotel rooms by the end of 2018, and the tourism industry provides more than 4,000 jobs.

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