State of the Region

Chickasaw County Senator Russel Jolly, from left, Houston Mayor Stacey Parker and former Houston Mayor Bill Smith sign in at the Chickasaw County table at Thursday's State of the Region meeting in Tupelo. (Floyd Ingram / Buy at photos.chickasawjournal.com)

Chickasaw County Senator Russell Jolly, from left, Houston Mayor Stacey Parker and former Houston Mayor Bill Smith sign in at the Chickasaw County table at Thursday’s State of the Region meeting in Tupelo. (Floyd Ingram / Buy at photos.chickasawjournal.com)

TUPELO – Movers and shakers from around Northeast Mississippi heard the latest trends in education, economic development and tourism at the 18th Annual State of the Region meeting at the BancorpSouth Conference Center.

Chickasaw County was well represented with the local delegation of more than a dozen hearing State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright stress the need for changes in local schools, Tennessee Valley Authority President Bill Johnson talk about TVA’s work in economic development and Philip Walker discuss heritage tourism through the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area.

Wright said there is a desperate need for improvements in early childhood education.

“We have students who show up for kindergarten who don’t come from homes where reading is taught because the parents don’t know how,” said Wright. “And with the new requirements that stop kids at the third grade who can’t read at the third grade level we suddenly see the problem.”

Wright stressed she did not want to see standards diminished.

“We need to urge our children to achieve,” said Wright. “We need to urge our teachers and our administrators to be innovative in ways to help our students achieve these higher goals.”

By early childhood education, she said she is referring to the period from birth to third grade.

Wright said pre-kindergarten programs for the disadvantaged are one solution.

She pointed out the Mississippi Legislature appropriated $3 million last year for early-childhood education, – a first for the state — and that money went to 11 school districts.

Lawmakers have appropriated another $3 million for 2014 and Wright wanted to the program continue to grow.

“I believe if you build it, they will come,” she said. “If you have high-quality pre-K programs, you will have a waiting list.”

She also said the state will give the same test to all incoming kindergartners this fall to measure their skills and needs. It will be the first time for a common screening test, which Wright said will provide a better picture of those students’ skills and needs and also will help assess existing pre-K programs.

Johnson said TVA’s mission is to improve the quality of life of all who live in the Tennessee Valley.

He said TVA has always been a source for economic development assistance for rural communities and that role will not change.

“We provide the tools of opportunity,” Johnson said. “Our best course is to be true to our heritage and to our founding principles. Our goal still is to provide low-cost energy, economic development and environmental stewardship.”

TVA has been a part of retaining or creating 5,500 jobs and $1.2 billion in investment in the past 15 months in Northeast Mississippi, Johnson added.

Walker touted the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Alliance, which comprises all or parts of 30 counties bordered by Interstate 55, Tennessee, Alabama and Highway 14.

Heritage tourists – or cultural tourists – spend more money than other tourists.

“The Natchez Trace splits Northeast Mississippi and is one of the main routes taken by heritage tourist,” said Walker. “You need to find ways to get them to stop and visit local attractions.”

Walker pointed out getting people to visit those attractions prompted them to spend money in communities.

He urge cities to invest in their downtowns and make them a destination.

“Heritage tourists spend about five nights per trip, compared to three nights for other tourists,” Walker said. “In addition, they spend about $62 a day more than other tourists.”

Heritage tourists spend about $688 per trip, while other tourists spend about $425.

And while manufacturing is the second-largest employment sector in the MHNHA, tourism is among the region’s fastest-growing sectors, Walker said. From 2001-2011, overall employment in the region dropped 8.3 percent, while tourism-related jobs – lodging and food service – grew by nearly 68 percent.

He said investing in tourism infrastructure helps the entire community with new restaurants and new retail development.

Walker felt the region’s focus on American Indian heritage, African-American heritage, the Civil War and the arts were the best chances of drawing heritage tourist to the area.

He said creating heritage festivals a booming industry and he urged communities to cash in on this trend.

Walker also said communities need to work together and think regionally to benefit everyone.

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