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By Jaimee Dorris, Contributor | U.S. News

 

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- It's not your typical Monday evening in South Mississippi. A rowdy Mardi Gras parade is rolling through the quaint downtown streets of this small beach community.

 

It's not your typical parade, either. There are no ornate floats, only decorated golf carts. In them are people dressed as pirates tossing lit up seahorse beads into the crowds of people lining Main Street.

 

"Here Mardi Gras is very family and community focused – quite different than the footage from Bourbon Street on TV," says golf cart driver Roy Raush, a 60-year-old retiree who relocated from Wisconsin to the town of 12,000 last year. 

 

Since the move to Mississippi, Raush says his social life has blossomed. Not only is he part of this Mardi Gras Krewe, he's also active with the local yacht club and Rotary Club. Hey says new friends seem to pop up everywhere. 

 

"Here we know all of our neighbors. I think it's the porches. People here spend time on their porches, and talk with their neighbors walking by. Back home that was not the case," Raush says. "Mississippians are so nice. They have really welcomed us with open arms." 

 

Raush and his wife Cindy Bilzing chose Mississippi for many reasons: They were looking for a warmer environment close to family in New Orleans, and they wanted to be near the beach. Affordability was a factor too. Raush did a lot of research.

"Our dollars go further here. Not only is it cheaper to live, Mississippi doesn't tax my retirement plan either," Raush says. 

 

According to U.S. News & World Report's Best States data, Mississippi ranks No. 1 nationwide in cost of living. Hancock County Tax Assessor Jimmie Ladner says the competitive rates are a major factor for people shopping for the desired Gulf of Mexico view.

 

 

"When people are looking at what they can get for their money, they look at a beach front property here compared to Galveston (Texas) or the Florida panhandle," Ladner says. "We enjoy the same views, the same water, but not the same cost." 

 

Mississippi is cheaper – way cheaper. And the savings are statewide. 

 

Bill Luckett is the former mayor of Clarksdale – the Delta city of 16,000 – and ran for governor in 2011. Luckett is an attorney, law professor, airplane pilot and Screen Actors Guild actor. In his spare time, Luckett works in real estate development.

 

"Here you get a whole lot more for the same money," Luckett says. "You can sell a house in Los Angeles for a million dollars and buy one here for $100,000 that's just as good and have $900,000 in the bank."

 

That's $900,000 to spend on entertainment, food, and travel, and Luckett says new residents don't have to give up anything. 

 

"We have the same internet, same movies, same cars and can make the same friends. We might not have the same restaurant or food offerings. OK, so you can call Amazon and get your tofu sent in by UPS," Luckett chuckles. "Mississippi's the best kept secret around."

 

There might be something to that statement. In 2018, Mississippi ranked No. 6 in the nation in quality of life. The metric measures things like air quality, water quality, social support and community involvement. Conversely, California is ranked at the very bottom.

 

Gulfport resident and fashion stylist Brenda Blount is a bit surprised. She moved from Florida 30 years ago and loves it here, but admits most people outside of the state don't think Mississippi has much to offer in terms of quality of life.

 

It might have something to do with the hundreds of negative news stories that pop up with a simple Google search of "Quality of Life in Mississippi." 

 

 

"My friends from New York have heard everything about Mississippi except the good things," Blount says. She says everyone knows about our education system and poverty rates. "But life is all about connections and connecting with people. Some of my most treasured relationships have been made in Mississippi."

 

Mississippi Arts Commission Executive Director Malcolm White lives in Jackson. He's not surprised by the ranking yet thinks others will be.

 

"The way we are perceived and unfortunately often think of ourselves is that we're first on every list you want to be last on and last on every list you want to be first on."

White believes the state's slow growth ironically adds to the higher quality of life.

 

"We don't have large scale manufacturing and industry, and we're very green. Our land is open, undeveloped, wilderness really," White adds. "As time goes on, I think water will become more and more important, and Mississippi is blessed with an abundance of it."

 

Mississippi is also home to the Pascagoula River, which is the last major free-flowing, undammed river in the continental United States. 

 

"We should get huge points just for that!" White says. 

 

According to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi is one of only 10 states east of the Mississippi River to be in attainment of EPA's ozone standard

White thinks Mississippi's traditional reluctance to progress isn't just good for the environment; it's also what maintains Mississippi's unique culture. 

 

"There's a saying that poverty is a friend to preservation. If you're not the hottest thing going, and you're not in a building boom, and you're not being overrun by hipsters, then you might slowly encroach upon a great quality of life. You're not chasing trends, tearing down your buildings. You're just being yourself, and you become an honest, authentic place," White says. "And I really do believe that that's what Mississippi is."

 

Back in Clarksdale, Former Mayor Bill Luckett agrees yet sees the other side. 

 

"(A great quality of life) is certainly offered here. Unfortunately, it's not as enjoyed by as many citizens as I would like," Luckett says. 

 

Citizens like Carlos Harper make up the other half of the Mississippi story. According to Census statistics, Mississippi ranks dead last in household income.

Harper has a difficult time getting past that harsh reality. 

 

"More jobs ... that's the bottom line," Harper says. "If you don't have a good education, a good job, and you don't know what's going on, you serve no purpose."

Harper, 41, was born in the Delta. He got into drugs at an early age and has been to prison four times. Harper, who works for Bill Luckett, has to work a lot harder to participate in the things people like Raush from Wisconsin enjoy as soon as they arrive.

 

"I've worked hard all my life to have the things I have and other people can come here and live good in one day," Harper says. 

 

As far as social support goes, Harper has had a lot. It's one of the reasons Harper stays in Mississippi. Yet he was surprised to realize that having people he can count on counts in the quality of life metric.

 

"I guess I don't think about that!" Harper laughs. "Bill (Luckett) and his wife have done everything for me since I've been home. They've take care of me and helped me get my life back together. They've been good to me. They help everybody no matter what their race is. They are open arms."

 

Finally something both Raush and Harper can agree on: Mississippi has open arms. 

 

"Maybe we're an acquired taste, maybe we're a little eclectic and exotic," Malcolm White says, "but these new stats show that we do have a few things going on right here."


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