By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – When a community shares its stories, even when those stories spring from painful pasts, that can be a step toward economic development.
That’s the message Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, and Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office, shared Thursday with members of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation.
“You’ll hear us say the word ‘story’ a lot. Heritage and cultural tourism is really no more than communities’ telling their own stories, realizing who they are and developing those assets – the good, the bad and the ugly,” White said. “When a community creates a voice and agrees on what their story is and they tell it together, they begin to attract visitors. They’re called ‘tourists’ in some circles.”
Shared stories also breed civic pride, White said – another prerequisite for successful development.
A recently released study conducted by the Mississippi Arts Commission and the Mississippi Development Authority shows the creative sector – too often neglected in economic development circles, White said – accounts for some three percent of the state’s economy.
“We have over 61,000 jobs in the creative sector,” he said. “That’s individual jobs like professors and writer, painters and potters, architects and designers. But it’s also people who work in public relations, who do website design and all sorts of creative people in non-creative industries.”
While admitting that tourism directors and other economic developers across the state have “Oxford envy,” White reminded the audience that Oxford only began becoming a tourist destination about 30 years ago. Moreover, he said, every community has its own stories that can attract visitors, whether that’s the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo or the Teddy Bear Festival in Rolling Fork, built around the story of President Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunt in the Mississippi Delta.
“Oxford has perhaps the purest cultural DNA in the state, but everybody’s got it,” Emling said. “One thing we preach in the Film Office is, ‘Pay attention to what is unique about your place. Don’t try to be someplace else. You are better off being you than being anything else.'”
That’s the formula for the Mississippi Film Office’s success in having such movies as “A Time to Kill,” “Big Bad Love” and “The Help” filmed in the state.
“We knew that the way we competed in the world of film commissions was being Mississippi better than anybody else could be Mississippi,” Emling said. The genesis of our cultural identity from the Film Office standpoint is that if this is a movie about Mississippi, we were going to get them here. … We used that little hook with them; we said, ‘You have to do these here; it makes your film better.'”
Last year’s filming of “The Help” in Greenwood is still paying dividends for the state – culturally and economically.
“‘It was a long, hot summer last year when they were here, but every one of those actresses is talking about making this film in this town,” Emling said. “That’s good for us. Everybody’s hearing how great Mississippi is.”
Groundwork for prospective movie production is an ongoing process, Emling said, who acknowledged scouting locations around Oxford.
“I’m just an industrial developer for a very weird industry,” he said.
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