OUR OPINION: Heritage tourism makes a deep economic mark

One of Northeast Mississippi’s signal economic development success stories – the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area – remains relatively low profile even though its reach embraces all or part of 30 counties largely in the northeastern part of our state.

A decade in formation, MHNHA, has grown from a seed planted by a handful of people who were convinced that the region’s culture was important, unique and engaging enough to offer a broadly based attraction for tourists who relish history, historic sites and the colorful byways in the small cities and communities of the hill country.

Phil Walker of the Walker Collaborative in Nashville made a compelling presentation at the CREATE Foundation’s State of the Region meeting last week, offering the same kind of financial background used to sell other worthwhile endeavors to the consuming public.

Walker has worked with the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area to develop a plan to attract more visitors to the region.

The MHNHA area is bordered by Tennessee, Alabama, Interstate 55 and Highway 14.

Within that territory are found the cultural phenomena created by Elvis Presley, Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner, some of the great blues musicians, the re-emerging homeland heritage of the Chickasaw Nation, and newly developing commemorative Civil War sites, including the impressive depictions of Civil War-era Corinth, a strategic railroad town for both the Union and Confederate forces.

Corinth’s heritage site lays appropriate heavy emphasis on how the war affected former (known to history as “contraband”) slaves freed by Union victories and a little later, the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Heritage tourists spend about five nights per trip, compared to three nights for other tourists,” Walker said. “In addition, they spend about $62 a day more than other tourists.”

Walker said from 2001-2011 employment in the region dropped 8.3 percent, but tourism-related jobs – lodging and food service – grew by nearly 68 percent.

As a measure of potential, consider the visitor totals for the Natchez Trace Parkway, a national parkway which dissects the heritage area. Its headquarters reported this spring:

“The Natchez Trace Parkway experienced an increase in March recreational visits in 2014 over 2013 figures. This year, 491,577 people used the Parkway in March, compared to 349, 273 who were counted in 2013. … Total year-to-date visitations this year are 1,380,648, compared to 1,215,159 last year.”

The Trace alone serves as a building block for tourism success.