Rural Mississippi rebirth

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Published: September 6,2004

Rural Mississippi is a powerhouse waiting to be unleashed.
That message recapped Gov. Haley Barbour’s Agriculture and Rural Development “Beyond City Limits” Conference, a daylong program held August 19 at the Mississippi Trade Mart in Jackson, featuring keynote speaker and “Boomtown USA” author Jack Schultz, U.S. Department of Commerce Undersecretary Mike Gallagher, Staplcotn CEO Woods Eastland, Great Texas Birding Trail developer Ted Eubanks and Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation president David Waide.

“The conference was a first step toward encouraging partnerships within local communities to develop ideas for fostering economic development,” said Barbour spokesperson Pete Smith. “The governor’s idea was to bring farmers, local economic developers and planners, agribusiness, small business, manufacturers, mayors and local elected leadership and various groups together to give them ideas on how they can work together to create jobs and economic opportunities, much like that which is outlined by Schultz in his book.”

Schultz told more than 500 attendees that technology is leading the trend to growing “agurbs” (rural towns with ties to agriculture located outside a metropolitan statistical area, or MSA).

“People will live where they want to live and work will follow them rather than them having to move to where the work is,” he said. “In the past three years, the 397 ‘agurbs’ have created one out of three jobs in the U.S.”
Not every small town will be able to make the transition, cautioned Schultz.

“‘Curb appeal,’ as (Mississippi Development Authority director) Leland Speed stated, will allow some communities to excel while others will wither,” he said. “While there is hope for virtually every small town, only a select few will move to a new level. Mississippi has a number of towns that have all of the resources to make this move. One or two passionate people in each of those towns could make the difference.”

Schultz cited Oxford, Philadelphia and Picayune as examples of small communities with populations of fewer than 40,000 that took advantage of growth opportunities and attracted manufacturing and high-tech jobs through strong leadership and visionary planning and by encouraging entrepreneurialism.

“There are wonderful examples of many towns … which have done wonderful things to set themselves apart,” he said.
Even though rural Mississippi has many assets to capitalize on, “We need to put all the pieces together to maximize effectiveness, and that takes leadership at every level,” said Smith.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell commended Barbour and his staff “for putting together an event that was effective in promoting the industry that most impacts Mississippi’s economy from year to year.”

“Much of the discussion regarded new processes, technology and businesses that can directly benefit Mississippi farmers and landowners by developing additional, high-value markets,” said Spell. “As the leadership in our state remains focused on agriculture in economic development, Mississippi will continue to emerge as a leader in agricultural innovation in the U.S. The past 12 months have demonstrated that growth in the Mississippi economy follows profitability in agriculture.”

USDA state director Nick Walters said the conference shows that Barbour “realizes that part of rural America is certainly tied to agriculture, but there’s much more.”

“It’s the same message I’ve been preaching for the three-and-a-half years that I’ve been state director: one of the ways to strengthen agriculture is to ensure that rural communities are diverse and not totally dependent on any one industry,” he said. “Jack Schultz did an excellent job on Boomtown and the follow-up is that once communities make those improvements, our agency is there to ensure that infrastructure and access to capital are in place. They can continue to live out that vision.”

Speakers focusing on other aspects for growing rural Mississippi’s economy included Eubanks, who helped Texas Parks and Wildlife create ecotourism vacation packages and the Rio Grande Birding Festival for Texas, boosting its bird-watching revenue from $266,000 in 1994 to more than $1.6 million two years later. Last year, nearly 100,000 bird watchers spent more than $39 million in the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

Technology access could significantly boost productivity in farming and help rural communities re-invent themselves, said Gallagher, adding that broadband access could be delivered cost effectively via existing cell phone towers.
Mississippi State University chemical engineer professor Mark Zappi told the audience that the production of biofuels — biodiesel and ethanol could be produced from corn, grass and soybeans and compounds in algae that could be converted into oil — could bolster the agricultural industry, but access to venture capital and increased funding for university research would be needed.

“If Zappi is right, then perhaps we can become the center of the rising industry,” said Smith.

Barbour definitely accomplished what he set out to do with the conference: to show Mississippians ideas, said Smith.

“But this is the first step,” said Smith. “From here, the idea is to convince local communities that with vision and leadership they can achieve the same results as the towns described by Schultz.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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