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Officials stress teamwork to better region’s economic development

WESSON – Likely congressional opponents next year joined forcesFriday to encourage teamwork and cooperation to improve thesouthwest Mississippi economic development picture.

Third District U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering and Fourth District U.S.Ronnie Shows were the featured speakers during the Second AnnualSouthwest Mississippi Economic Development Symposium. The event,sponsored by Copiah-Lincoln and Southwest Mississippi CommunityColleges and the MBA program at Alcorn State University, attractedaround 180 elected officials and businessmen from area cities andcounties.

The congressmen’s message was for local, state and federalofficials to work together to improve their communities.

“If we can have teamwork in place at every level, we can besuccessful,” Pickering said.

Shows approached the issue from a rural versus metropolitanstandpoint. He also touted teamwork in combating an anti-ruralslant in Washington.

The Democrat said Mississippi is the fifth most rural state inthe nation. He cited statistics showing that 75 percent of thepopulation live in metropolitan areas of 250,000 or morepeople.

“That means 25 percent of us are rural,” Shows said.

With those percentages, Shows said it’s hard to getunderstanding on issues that are important to rural communities. Hementioned a “fend-for-themselves” feeling toward rural areas in thewake of NAFTA and other activities that cost jobs.

“That’s one issue that we are continuing to fight up there,”Shows said.

While Shows and Pickering, a Republican, were together Friday,there’s widespread speculation that they’ll be facing each othernext year after state lawmakers redraw congressional district linesfor four districts instead of the current five. Mississippi islosing a congressional seat because its population did not grow asfast as other states.

Both congressmen offered some light-hearted comments about thepossible confrontation. Shows directed some appreciative wordstoward state legislators attending the symposium.

“They’re very important to us these days,” Shows said.

In discussing economic development, Pickering said the challengefor communities is to come up with “creative answers to oldquestions.” He cited the need to develop jobs that keep stateresidents in the state and find ways to strengthen families andcommunities.

Pickering pointed to federal efforts to improve research andtechnology programs at state universities and institutions. He saidfunding for programs like remote sensing technology andagricultural research has more than doubled recently.

Transportation and infrastructure are the “bread and butter” ofeconomic development, Pickering said. He applauded congressionalefforts that allowed Mississippi to receive more of its fair shareof fuel tax revenue.

“We were getting shortchanged,” Pickering said.

Pickering sad the state’s delegation is also trying to increasefunding for transportation areas such as airports, intermodalfacilities and on the coast.

Defense spending was Pickering’s third area of emphasis. He saidMississippi has benefited from defense spending in the state goingfrom $4 billion to $8 billion.

Pickering the state’s success has been the result of strategicplanning. Regarding local community improvement projects, heencouraged teamwork first at the city and county level, then statelevel and finally to the federal level.

“We are not the catalyst, we are not the key and we are not thecore, but we can help,” Pickering said about federalinvolvement.

Pickering touted the four T’s of economic development: Training,Transportation, Technology and Teamwork.

Shows encouraged more attention to education.

“Teaching is the answer to a lot of our problems,” he said.

Shows, a former educator, discussed the impact of good schools,good transportation-related access to schools and proper class sizeon education. He cited study statistics that showed only 20 percentof district students are in optimal class sizes, while the rest arein overcrowded classrooms.

The congressman mentioned $1.6 billion that has been allocatedtoward class size reduction efforts.

“That’s just a drop in the bucket in what needs to be done,”Shows said.

Shows pointed out factors that have contributed to a slowereconomy in the state.

He said the timber industry has “gone down the tubes,” partiallybecause of imported timber from Canada. Also, other agriculturalareas like dairy farmers are hurting and textile jobs have beenlost to places like Mexico as a result of NAFTA.

“It may not have had an immediate effect, but we’re starting tosee the effects,” Shows said, adding that the furniture productionmarket may be next.

In congressional efforts to address the situation, Showsmentioned the pending NAFTA Impact Relief Act. He said it isdesigned to restore jobs lost due to the trade agreement byencouraging industries to locate in rural areas.

“There’s got to be incentives for them to want to come back,”Shows said.