MEC meeting focuses on ways to better economy, education

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, November 14, 2007

While people indicated they feel good about living and workingin Mississippi, there are certain issues that the MississippiEconomic Council is focusing on for betterment of the economy andeducation.

MEC President Blake Wilson addressed local business andcommunity leaders Tuesday morning at the Bank of Brookhaven aboutissues ranging from the economic to the educational. The groupdiscussed what changes Southwest Mississippi leaders must make inorder to put the area in the running for a major plant like theToyota plant that recently located in the northern part of thestate.

“It takes the communities working together to get something likethat,” said Wilson. “The MDA (Mississippi Development Authority)didn’t say, ‘Toyota, you locate here.’ Toyota looks at manydifferent places and picks the one they feel suits their facilitybest.”

Bill Sones, president of Bank of Brookhaven, pointed out theremight be some challenges to overcome in the area, mentioning thelack of a “supersite” to attract other major industries, and roughtopography.

“It may be a little more costly to make ourselves appealing, butSouthwest Mississippi is worth it,” he said.

Wilson told the group that internationally, eyes are beginning toturn to Mississippi as a possible development ground after theToyota plant’s location in the northern part of the state.

“Word is something is happening in Mississippi, and we can allcapitalize on that,” he said. “It creates a surge of enthusiasm inan area when that kind of economic development takes place.”

District 92 Representative-elect Becky Currie promised the groupshe would do whatever it takes to make state and national officialspay the attention due to the southwest part of the state.

“The connecting counties need to work together,” she said. “Gov.Barbour has said he will do whatever it takes to help us and I planto remind him of that quite frequently. Waiting for someone to doit for us has not worked – we have to get out and do itourselves.”

Lawrence County Community Development Association Director BobSmyra agreed.

“We can’t wait for MDA to call us, we’ve got to knock on some doorsourselves and say, ‘Why don’t you come to Southwest Mississippi?'”he said. “We have some things to market with, and we need to usethem.”

Wilson told the group they would eventually succeed in time if theywere willing to work together.

“A lot of it is the regional approach to marketing,” he said. “Youhave to push the strengths of this part of the state. Collaborationcan be messy and frustrating, but it is essential.”

Meanwhile, the group also discussed issues in education, focusingon several issues MEC is hoping to improve on in their efforts inthe coming year.

One cause that MEC is taking particular interest in, Wilson said,is the issue of appointed school superintendents.

“You can have a very good elected superintendent,” he said. “But insome rural districts there’s not a large pool or talent to pullfrom, and it’s hard to find qualified candidates.”

Wilson shared the contents of a survey of business leaders andcitizens in the state, with questions focusing on satisfaction inthe state’s economic and educational progress. He pointed out that73 percent of business leaders say they believe it is better toappoint a superintendent, as opposed to 36 percent of citizens.

“It is also important to have an improved school board for thatreason,” he said.

Wilson also shared with meeting attendees MEC’s emphasis onmaximizing high school graduates through the Mississippi Scholarsprogram, as well as other improvements in education and workforcetraining. The state needs an accountability process, he said, totrack successes in workforce training and education, and needs tofocus on preventing high school dropouts.

Kenny Goza, who has spearheaded Mississippi Scholar efforts inBrookhaven, said the program has been successful mainly because ithonors students for just being willing to challenge themselves.

“That’s critical: Honoring not just the top students, but the kidswilling to take the more rigorous studies,” Goza said.

Wilson applauded Brookhaven’s efforts in the program, saying thecommunity has led the state in its successful execution.

“Brookhaven has been our top community in the state in ourMississippi Scholars program, and representatives have come fromother cities to see how you make it work,” he said.