LLOYD GRAY: Building, not relying, on the past

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

News people tend to live in the moment. What’s happening right now is our fixation – that’s what you want to know and what we want to tell you about.
Sometimes we’ll take a look back at the past, to help explain what’s happening now or just for the fun of it. We’re less likely to look ahead, unless it’s to speculate about who’ll run for what office or which team might win a state or conference title. That’s always been the case, but the unprecedented pace of change these days makes trying to determine what will happen in the future that much more challenging.
Beginning today, however, and for the rest of this week, we’ll set our sights on the future – the economic future of Northeast Mississippi. We won’t make a lot of predictions, but we’ll examine what shape the region’s economy could take over the next 10 years. Our series is entitled, “The Drive to 2020: Building our Economy for the Future.”
We start with an examination of where we are and where we’ve been and the chief obstacles to getting us where we want to go over the next decade. Then we’ll review our major existing economic sectors and assets and see what projections are in those areas.
We’ll talk about manufacturing, health care, retail, tourism and financial services, and about the role of higher education – both community colleges and universities – in building the economic infrastructure for the future. And we’ll examine the importance of quality of life issues, including the presence of strong public schools, to our economic future.
After the week-long series, we hope you’ll have a better idea of what Northeast Mississippi’s economic strengths are and where we need shoring up. We hope you’ll be able to see a little bit better what the future may hold – without any guarantees, of course.
What happens in this decade in Northeast Mississippi is up to us. At least that’s the philosophy this region has lived by for more than half a century.
As George McLean, the late longtime owner of this newspaper and a visionary leader in community and economic development put it, if we want progress in our communities and region, we’ve got to do the work ourselves. There’s no one else who’s going to come in here and do it for us.
As this series reports, our economy is in another of its periodic transitions. The movement now is from lower to higher skills manufacturing, driven by the impending impact of Toyota and its suppliers.
The Toyota story is one in which Northeast Mississippi’s leaders applied the McLean dictum. They didn’t wait around for something to happen; they made it happen. They did so in unorthodox ways, creating a three-county regional alliance and putting money into the development of a megasite without any idea of who might wind up there. But they made it work – with help from the state toward the end, but mostly because of local initiative and effort.
Yet triumph brings new challenges. Toyota’s delayed but now back-on-track impact on the region means there will be a demand for higher-skilled, better-trained workers. And if the new automotive era in Northeast Mississippi is to reach its full potential, the educational levels in this region are going to have to improve.
That will be true not just for Toyota and its suppliers, but all the other manufacturing – existing and to come – will require a higher level of education and skills than many Northeast Mississippi workers possess. That will mean stepped-up efforts to improve our schools, reduce our dropout rate and get more people into post-high school education and training.
Communities have to do for themselves in increasing their attractiveness as places to live and do business. That means developing amenities that may have been regarded as luxuries or frills in the past but that people will expect their hometown, adopted or otherwise, to have.
The message that runs through this series is that the status quo won’t cut it in the “drive to 2020.” We won’t be able to put it on cruise control and live on past successes.
This region has fallen victim to complacency and self-satisfaction less often than most. Sometimes a history of success can be a disadvantage; the tendency is to think it will inevitably continue.
It won’t – not without a commitment to meet new challenges. We hope our taking this time to look ahead helps underscore that a successful past, while useful, is no guarantee of what lies ahead. The future must be built anew.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.