TUPELO — Correlation between education retainment levels and economic development and the importance of improving in both areas was among many issues discussed when regional community development leaders convened Friday for the CREATE Foundation’s annual State of the Region meeting in Tupelo.
The foundation’s Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi was established in 1995 and has addressed needs such as highway improvements, higher education attainment, leadership development and expanded broadband access among others.
Some of the main objectives for the program include improving the highest level of education attained by adults 25 and over in the region, reducing dropout rates to 10 percent by 2015 and assuring that all public schools in the region will have 80 percent of students achieving proficiency in state testing. The foundation already helps provide two years of tuition-free community college education for each high school graduate in the region in 16 of its 17 counties through investments from companies and private donors.
Speakers Friday included Miss. Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn, who spoke of the importance of fostering an environment for good education for the purpose of creating a more educated workforce, and Golden Triangle Development Link CEO Joe Max Higgins, who provided an overview of strides the organization has made over its 10-year history and Lowndes County’s role in the 17-county foundation as a new member. The county officially joined CREATE last year.
Gunn touts dual track education
Gunn said having a foundation of quality education helps attract businesses to Mississippi and makes the state as a whole more prosperous as a result.
“As we move about trying to attract companies to Mississippi, the first question they always ask is, ‘If I bring my company to your state, who’s going to work there? Do you have trained, skilled, educated viable people to come and work at my company or factory?’ We’ve got to be able to answer that honestly,” Gunn said. “That’s the reason we have to focus on preparing our students and our citizens to fulfill those jobs. We’ve got to have people who can provide electrical service, plumbing, mechanical skills, welding, all those meet the needs of these companies.”
One priority he said state leaders have made clear recently is focusing on a dual-track model where youth can succeed regardless of what career path they feel suits them.
“We recognize that not every child wants to go to college, and therefore doesn’t need college preparatory courses, but they do want to be plumbers and electricians and mechanics, welders.
“So we’ve created this dual track where they can decide they want to do this and already begin the process of getting an education in that field, so when they step out at the age of 18 they’ve already got a skill. They’re ready to go to work. Or they can go to the community colleges. We’ve got to incorporate the community colleges into this idea. That’s where we train that workforce where these kids can get a skill and go out into the job market.”
CREATE Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield said CREATE was founded to foster an alliance between counties in Northeast Mississippi where volunteer leaders came together to discuss ideas on how to bring more industrial activity to the area through efforts in improving education and investing in the future.
“Regional community development is the way we get people to work together,” he said. “We study the data and read the numbers. We identify key issues like education, or highways or whatever it might be. We set regional goals, and our goals are outlined…and then we don’t run programs.
“We train people together to implement strategies and programs to address those goals. We give out information on how we’re doing as a region and so once a year we kind of check off against our goals and our benchmarks and where we’re standing now and I think the overall message is we are slowly, marginally getting better. We’ve still got a gap to make up with the rest of the nation. We’re slowly closing the gap.”
The big deals
Higgins said he was thankful for CREATE having Lowndes County as a member. He said the contribution the Link and Lowndes County can make to the fold is bringing in large-scale industrial developments such as the Yokohama tire manufacturing plant slated to begin operating in West Point in 2015 where young people can have another available career avenue. He explained what the Link has done over its history to position Lowndes County as well as Clay and Oktibbeha counties for more development.
“Every bean field on the edge of town is not the next super site. It has to have other things with it. One of the things it has to have is infrastructure. We have made great strides improving our power grid in the counties we represent,” Higgins said. “Since 2003, we’ve made about $65 million worth of improvements to our power grid. We will be building $60 million worth of highways in our industries we serve. We’ve invested about $35 million in rail. We’ve also made a big investment in water and sewer. Since 2003 we have or will invest about $40 million in our industrial parks in water and sewer…In 10 years we’ve invested about $203 million (total) in infrastructure.”
The investment of area leaders and developers combined with public money investment has contributed to growing success in securing industry in the Golden Triangle.
“The reason these deals are coming here is because there’s been a significant conscious decision to invest in land, infrastructure and the things that support industry. The number of deals we’ve won in 10 years (is) about $4 billion. We’ve competed for an additional $10 billion that we’ve lost,” he said. “If we look at the jobs we’ve won and the jobs we’ve competed for and we run our batting average, we’re hitting about .237. That’s pretty good. When we looked at the investment that we won, we’re batting .412.
With big sites and big infrastructure, our sweet spot now has become the super project. As we see, where we fit in to CREATE to the North Mississippi region, we think our niche is going to be the big sites, the big deals, the big utilities. We intend on positively exploiting the community college system and also Mississippi State University in science, technology, engineering and math.”
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.