Heritage area designation lauded as milestone

TUPELO – With its deep and broad history and culture, the Mississippi Hills area attracts thousands of visitors who spend millions of dollars each year.
And now, official federal designation as a national heritage area could lead to even bigger numbers.
The designation “will boost our state’s economy by increasing tourism opportunities,” said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who on Tuesday joined scores of regional leaders in celebrating the official recognition of the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area.
“Tourism is economic development,” Wicker said. “We already have visitors spending about $700 million in fiscal year 2008 in the region, and we feel we can expand that two- to threefold.”
The designation, which took effect with President Barack Obama’s signing of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, authorizes the heritage area to receive up to $1 million in federal funds annually for 10 years.
The amount of money will depend on the status of the heritage area and the money available, and the Mississippi Hills will have to wait until next year to see what it can tap.
But the designation is a significant milestone that will only serve to boost the region, said Kent Bain, the project coordinator for the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance.
“The designation is significant because of access to resources,” he said.
Working with other heritage areas, in addition to more money, will allow the 30-county region to further promote itself as a destination, Bain said.
“This region is a very important part of Mississippi and an identity is beginning to emerge,” said Gloria Kellum, the retired vice chancellor for university relations at Ole Miss and a key project organizer.  “We have it all.”
Craig Ray, the director of the tourism division at the Mississippi Development Authority, said the state’s tourism revenue last year was $6 billion, close to the pre-Katrina high of $6.3 billion.
“We’re down about 10 percent for this fiscal year, but we are in the three strongest months – March, April and May,” Ray said.
“There are pockets of the state that aren’t down, which includes this region, which has gotten a lot of international travelers.”
The heritage area designation, Ray said, allows communities in the region to reach a larger audience and thus, more potential tourists.

Dennis Seid/Daily Journal