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New Quality of Life Ranking Challenges Mississippi Stereotypes

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."

Long Leaf Trace expands, connects to Downtown Hattiesburg


By BETH BUNCH, Hub City Spokes


If the houses toward the north end of Busch-man Street could talk, they’d have stories of how they’ve seen the city grow. Some of the older homes have tax records that date back to the 1890s and saw the day when there was no indoor plumbing or electricity.


In the near future, the neighborhood will see a new addition of sorts as the Longleaf Trace continues its stretch to the  northeast. This time the destination is from the Hattiesburg Train Depot, down Buschman and through the woods and under the railroad trestle to Chain Park.


Mayor Toby Barker and other city officials were on hand last Friday at the corner of Buschman and Ash streets where city workers are busy widening and extending the sidewalks, which will serve as a Trace extension.


Barker referred to the Longleaf Trace as one of the crown jewels of Hattiesburg and South Mississippi.


The Trace, which starts in Prentiss in Jefferson Davis County, is a 41-mile paved pedestrian, equestrian, rollerblade and bicycle trail that runs southwest to Hattiesburg, welcoming people from across the city, state, region and beyond.


 “Our collective vision for the Longleaf Trace has always been big,” said Barker of the new .85-mile expansion.


The Trace has seen several expansions during the past several years, the most notable from the the University of Southern Mississippi to North Main Street and North Main to the Hattiesburg Depot. Spurs to Edwards Street and the the Hattiesburg Zoo were completed last year. Barker said the addition would connect the Trace to one of the city’s hidden treasures – Chain Park.


The $680,000 project is an 80/20 match, which included a generous donation from the Canadian National Railroad.


Barker thanked City Council members for voting to spend money for the match, including Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado, whose district this latest project sits in. With this expansion the Trace now touches every council member’s ward.


“We want to thank Mayor (Johnny) Dupree, who was able to get the ball rolling several years ago,” said Barker. “This has been a long-standing plan for the Longleaf Trace. His guiding this project through a lot of federal regulations and most importantly, negotiating with the railroad was no easy task, so we want to say thank you to him.”


Barker also recognized Neel Schaffer Engineers as well as Precision Construction, city engineer Lamar Rutland and Canadian National Railroad for working with the city on the project.


The mayor said with this construction the city would look to where they could take the Longleaf Trace next.


District 4’s Mary Dryden encouragd all members of the community to be aware of the Trace and what it has to offer as far as a healthy way to live.


“We want to promote healthy lifestyles in our city and things that can involve entire families and the Trace is a good example of that,” she said.


Construction of the project will take several months, which will require a connection through the woods and under the railroad trestle before reaching Chain Park.

Barker noted that the Longleaf Trace is one of the longer trails in Mississippi, if not the longest.


“With this addition of .85 miles, this will push the Trace to just over 44 miles long,” he said. “That’s a real accomplishment and hopefully just the start of more connectivity in our city. Our goal is to have neighborhoods and pathways lead to the Trace, so no matter where you live in Hattiesburg, there’s a way for you to get here by bike or by foot.”


He noted that last year a railbed from Ronie to Edwards Street was established and at the same time, a pathway at William Carey on Tuscan.


“The idea is to create some clear connectivity to WCU from downtown, connection to Town Square Park,” Barker said. “The more neighborhoods, the better quality of life we’ll enjoy in the city. Healthy lifestyles come with that and tourism because people come from all over to use the Trace.


Mayor Toby Barker will announce the beginning of construction for the Longleaf Trace extension project. This project will connect the Longleaf Trace from the Train Depot to Chain Park.

Delshad announced as New Director of Meridian Main Street

East Mississippi Business Development Corporation Annual Meeting


Debby Delshad was announced the new Director of Meridian Main Street at the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation's (EMBDC) Annual Meeting recently held at the MSU Riley Center in downtown Meridian.   
Delshad will continue her duties as EMBDC Membership Director and stated,  "The growth and vitality that is happening in downtown Meridian is amazing.  You can feel the energy and the excitement as the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience Museum is preparing to open in April and work on the historic Threefoot Building has begun.  What an honor to be a part of helping downtown Meridian reach it's full potential." 
Pictured:  Debbie Mathis, EMBDC COO; Jan Miller-MS Main Street Director of Field Services; Debby Delshad-Meridian Main Street Director. 

Saltillo Adds Restaurant, Retail Options

Where You Are

MSU Extension Magazine
Story by Nathan Gregory

Saltillo Adds Restaurant, Retail Options


When civic leaders in Saltillo made the move in 2016 to pursue Mississippi Main Street Association membership for their town, they wanted to see their business community become more connected to its residents.


Guidance from the Mississippi State University Extension Service’s Center for Government and Community Development has helped leaders of the small city just north of Tupelo reach some of their goals and plan for future growth.


Saltillo Main Street, which is overseen by director Lindsey Hines, has adopted several changes Extension recommended in a vision planning study facilitated by the association.

“We’re still brand new as a Mississippi Main Street member, but we already have a road map of where we are going and how to get there. Having that guide makes our success easier to achieve,” Hines says.

Rachael Carter, Extension community development specialist, served as an economist and market analyst for the vision planning team. The group, which consisted of architects, graphic designers, marketing experts, historic preservationists, and planners, toured the community to meet with civic leaders, local merchants, and residents.


“The Main Street program wanted to find out if there was potential for business growth in the downtown and what infrastructure changes were needed for success,” Carter explains. “We did a tour of the community and learned about potential resources.”


Carter also provided data that the Saltillo Main Street board of directors used to determine what kinds of businesses the town’s residents were most likely to support.


“Rachael was able to gather, through demographic data, the retail leakage Saltillo was experiencing,” Hines explains. “She found that Saltillo residents spend a lot of money on their pets, and that the town could support a restaurant and additional retail businesses. One of the biggest objectives in forming this board was identifying the most appropriate businesses to recruit, and her work has been instrumental in answering that question.”


The vision team helped the Saltillo Main Street board develop a 5-year business-recruitment plan with long- and short-term benchmarks. Two steps the board quickly completed were implementing a banner system and starting a town website, The downtown area now welcomes visitors with 11 banners featuring the “Welcome Home” logo the vision team designed.


“The team did overlays of our existing buildings to show enhancements that could be made to them to enhance the downtown’s design,” Hines says. “I like having examples to show business owners what they can do with their storefronts to make them more visually appealing.”


With the assistance of Saltillo Mayor Rex Smith, the local Main Street board is working toward full occupancy of the town’s storefronts. He built a relationship with an absentee owner of several downtown buildings and worked with him to have a locally established business owner purchase half of them. The owner donated the other four parcels and a vacant lot, where a 70-car parking lot is now under construction.


Since obtaining the buildings, business owners are opening shops. A florist expanded his business space, while other entrepreneurs have opened a salon, a restaurant, an antique store, and a motorcycle-repair shop.


“Getting those nine pieces of property was huge for us,” Hines emphasizes. “Right now, we’re 75 percent full with our downtown commercial spaces, and we addressed a longstanding parking issue.”


The vision team also suggested Hines establish a Junior Main Street program, which she hopes will convince teenagers in Saltillo today to return as adults and help the community thrive.


“I think it’s important for our young people to see the importance of getting involved with our community,” she says. “I want our kids to go to college, but I also want them to be proud of where they grew up and come back here to raise their kids.”

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