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Business, community leaders working as one

Need plus timing plus leadership equal one.

The equation wasn’t written down on anyone’s master plan, but it’s a formula that took hold in the Miss-Lou in the last year, and area residents better be glad it did, local business and community leaders said.

The Ferriday and Vidalia chambers of commerce decided to merge into one.

Dozens of Natchez and Adams County businesses realized combining forces with city and county government to create one economic development engine — Natchez Inc. — was necessary.

And the tie that binds all sides together, regionalism, took off with a clear goal from the start — become one.

Need

The latest round of courting togetherness began in earnest 18 months before Census numbers dealt a blow to the Miss-Lou.

The population has dropped in Ferriday, Vidalia, Natchez and Adams County during the last decade.

But no one in the Miss-Lou needed the U.S. Census Bureau to deliver the news that established methods of cultivating growth and prosperity in town weren’t working.

“We’ve been working separately and fighting against ourselves since I was a kid,” Ferriday resident and chamber leader Liz Brooking said. “Whatever we’ve been doing wasn’t working.”

Without an interstate running through town, growing the Miss-Lou means thinking creatively, said Sarah Smith, Promise Hospital director of physician relations and education.

“Everybody knew we had to do something,” Smith said. “You just have to be flexible on the ways we can help this area.”

When national economic woes hit a Miss-Lou that had said goodbye to its major industries, eyes began to open, Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce President Debbie Hudson said.

“The economy and life made it so that we didn’t have a choice,” Hudson said. “The only way we will survive is by pulling all our resources together.”

Timing

Not long after Concordia Economic and Industrial Development District Executive Director Heather Malone moved back to her home parish, she began sharing ideas she learned at her previous job with area leaders.

Regional partnerships were growing in popularity around the country, and local business leaders soon invited Ronnie Bryant, president and CEO of Charlotte (N.C.) Regional Partnership to talk to the community.

“He said, ‘If you don’t work together, you will die,’” Hudson said. “That’s pretty strong, but it’s true.”

Hudson and Malone agree a few eyes were opened when Bryant spoke.

“He came in and laid into us,” Malone said. “He didn’t hold anything back. We’ve all heard that we either rise together or fall apart, but it finally hit.”

The crowd that heard Bryant talk was composed largely of business leaders. That same group has picked up the ball and started running, Malone said.

“We’ve relied on government for so long to do everything,” she said. “But, (business has) got to take the lead.

“Not that government is not important, we do need those resources, but we need to use them as resources and not expect them to take care of everything.”

Leadership

Having the right people in the right places at the right time was key to promoting a regional mindset too, community leaders said.

From Malone and Hudson at the helm of the organizations responsible for fostering business development and providing a public voice for business to elected officials who decided it was time to listen, leadership has been key, said Ruth Nichols, special assistant to the president at Alcorn State University.

“It’s not to say that prior leadership was wrong, but this leadership is very open to it and willing to make a commitment to it,” Nichols said.

The right business leaders were in place as well, Concordia Bank President Pat Biglane said.

“Businesses kind of got into it,” he said. “It was the right people getting together to talk about it. There is a lot more trust and communication involved.”

One

With a year under its belt, the Miss-Lou Regionalism Steering Committee has a list of accomplishments and goals to carry it into the future.

The group of elected and business leaders led a series of forums to gather community feedback, organized subcommittees and began monitoring their progress.

It’s the subcommittees who were workhorses, Malone said.

Focused first on “grabbing the low-hanging fruit” and quickly showing the community action, Malone said, several subcommittees organized community projects.

The health care subcommittee, chaired by Smith, currently meets once a week.

The group has hosted an after-hours and a luncheon to bring doctors, nurses and staff from the four area hospitals together with the community.

The goals, Smith said, are to educate citizens about local health care, in hopes of keeping more patients in town for care; introduce local doctors to each other in order to foster a relationship that will increase the number of in-town referrals; and promote healthy living among citizens.

In the coming months the group will host a 5K run across the bridge and back and begin planning for a community-wide health fair.

The education sub-committee also hit the ground running, said Nichols, its chairman.

Approximately 15 members from all area schools attend monthly meetings. The group is currently working to map out a list of assets already in place in the local education community.

The subcommittee is also focused on educating parents and students about the dangers of the Internet.

The group sponsored an Internet safety seminar for adults in October and is working now on a session for students in April.

The community development subcommittee — focused on housing and diversity as well — meets regularly and is most proud of the fact that leaders from both sides of the river are routinely sitting down together and talking about what is best for the community, chairman Margaret Perkins of First Natchez Radio Group said.

“This group of people prefers to look at the fact that Mississippi River runs through our community and does not divide it,” Perkins said. “We have broken down (mental) barriers by just being able to pick up the phone and call others. Simply being able to talk together is a huge deal.”

Multiplying and dividing

In the coming year the steering committee plans to formalize the unity it started last year.

The group will begin applying for grants to fund a strategic plan, develop a roadmap of long-term goals and begin mapping the assets of the area, Malone said.

A website marketing the Miss-Lou as a region may be coming soon, but the group is also aware that it must keep preaching the message of “one.”

“We’ve not convinced everybody yet that it’s going to work,” Malone said.

But it is starting to stick, Brooking said.

“It is getting harder and harder for the naysayers,” she said. “They realize if you don’t want to help, just get out of the way.”

The need is there, the timing is right and the community leadership is willing, Brooking said, but most importantly the people want it.

“People are praying,” she said. “We’ve known something was not right, but we just couldn’t get there. This came together after a lot of prayers and people are willing to hear and take advantage of this opportunity we’ve been sent.”

It’s not a new idea, Malone said, it’s simply a matter of organization and communication.

“We are one community and we need to present ourselves as one community and one voice.”

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