Mississippi Economic Council leaders talk about growth opportunities

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By Josh Troy

Clarksdale Advocate

Economic opportunities, accessible healthcare, and the best possible education are some of the things Mississippi Economic Council officials are hoping to make possible throughout the state. MEC representatives spoke about their vision and progress toward reaching those goals to members of the community at Yazoo Pass recently.

MEC, Crossroads Economic Partnership, and Blue Cross & Blue Shield sponsored the event. MEC Executive Director Scott Waller said Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center is on the cusp of something really special. “It’s really about the health of the overall community,” he said.

A business plan was put in place to buy out the lease of Delta Health Systems and have Coahoma County run its own hospital. The County began overseeing the hospital on May 1 and is in a 90-day transition period. Waller said the community has to be involved in making healthcare decisions. “We’re trying to find the best way that we, as an organization, can focus on making sure we keep healthcare at the forefront,” Waller said.

He said there is a local community partnership, Delta Council, and Crossroads Economic Partnership, and there have been conversations about how to take advantage of opportunities. “Where do we focus our attention to be successful?” Waller said. Waller surveyed the audience about key issues in Mississippi. A total of 45% of the audience said community involvement was the greatest asset of any community. “Small towns play a vital role in what we do in this state,” Waller said.

A total of 44% of the audience said the workforce was the biggest need of the community, 68% said Mississippi was headed in the right direction, 71% said their workplace would hire more employees in the next year, and 97% said a healthy workforce was very important to the community. “I think anyone that doesn’t see that as important, come see me afterward and explain to me why,” Waller said jokingly.

Waller shifted the conversation to education. “The improvements that we made in education are starting to pay off,” he said. Waller said Mississippi is No. 1 in the nation in fourth-grade growth of reading scores and in the growth of math scores. He added Mississippi is now ranked 23rd in fourth-grade reading. “Just 10 years ago, we were ranked 49,” Waller said. “So, in 10 years’ time, we have gone from 49 to 23. That’s because our legislature wanted to make sure that we made reading a priority. It’s because our teachers and our administrators said, ‘OK, we’ll do that.’”

Waller said some of the goals for Mississippi to reimagine what it can be as a state include capitalizing on the low cost of living, having the best possible career and technical training, and a new accountability model for schools.

Waller brought the issues of healthcare and the workforce together. “How do we better articulate the importance of healthcare for today’s workforce?” he said. In 2020, Waller said legislative leadership was convinced that an office of workforce development was needed.

Waller asked the audience one of the biggest challenges Mississippi companies are facing. The state’s image and perception were the top answer. “I wish I could say I was surprised by the answer, but this is everywhere we’ve been,” said Waller, noting progress has been made. “That has been one of our initiatives for years – how do we begin to change our image?”

Waller said many people want to tell the story about Mississippi. “If you let most people tell the story, you’re not going to like what they have to say,” he said. Waller said Mississippi must tell its own story. He acknowledged the state has challenges, but said there are opportunities and great things are happening. “We can do amazing things, and we will continue to do amazing things,” he said.

Cathy Northington, the COO of MEC, told her own story about bringing young people into the workforce. Northington, who has children aged 29, 22, and 18, was part of asking younger professionals why they leave Mississippi. “They can give you the answer instead of trying to figure it out,” she said.

Northington said she learned young people want to stay in Mississippi and be close to family. She also said young people want to be at the table and in the conversation about solutions to problems. “What we learned is that a lot of the young professionals want to stay here,” she said. The communities that are thriving are those that have strong and professional programs. They said they want to be a part of the solutions to the problems.

Crossroads Economic Partnership Executive Director Jon Levingston said city and county officials have gotten behind healthcare and business initiatives. Levingston talked about how the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors saved the local hospital from closing. He acknowledged Board of Supervisors President Johnny Newson, who represents District 4, and Supervisor Paul Pearson, who represents District 1, were at the event. “When our elected officials get behind a project, they get behind it unanimously,” Levingston said.

Levingston said government entities have worked together well since Chuck Espy became the Mayor of Clarksdale in 2017. “To a large extent, it began with the first term of our Mayor, Chuck Espy,” Levingston said. Espy said, whether the leader is Nick Saban as the football coach of Alabama, former President Barack Obama, or former President Donald Trump, everyone on the team must work together well to make things happen. “A team can never be successful if they can’t find their rhythm,” Espy said.

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