OUR OPINION: Key jobs factors remain unchanged

The Mississippi Economic Council, led by president and CEO Blake Wilson, brought its traveling road show to Tupelo on Friday, and as always, the topics highlighted were central to this state’s chances to develop and sustain economic momentum.

Education, workforce development, transportation – all have been part of a steady MEC drumbeat through the years. The MEC’s Blueprint Mississippi emphasizes these, and one of the more interesting elements of the periodic Blueprint updates around the state is the electronic polling at the luncheon meetings.

In Tupelo, the results were not surprising. Better than half the audience was “very concerned” about the state of education funding in Mississippi and more than eight in 10 were at least somewhat concerned. Implementation of the Common Core State Standards was seen as “very important” by 55 percent of the Tupelo audience, and another one-third thought it was at least somewhat important.

These results indicated a clear recognition among the business-oriented audience of the central role of adequate funding and higher expectations for Mississippi’s education system if our communities are to be more economically competitive.

Wilson shared a variety of data showing that Mississippi is, as he put it, on the “right trajectory” in educational performance and economic growth, though there’s a long way to go in both. The message was that commitment and persistence over the long haul are essential in the areas critical to success.

One of those is transportation, and the polling also indicated most in the audience – while appreciative of the tremendous strides made through the 1987 four-lane program – are aware that Mississippi’s roads and bridges are in increasing need of maintenance and that funds are short. A solution must come, and soon, or the price of repairs and renovation – not to mention the cost of new road construction – will grow even farther beyond our capacity to pay.

The MEC meeting came a day after state economist Darrin Webb pointed out to legislators that Lee County was fifth highest in the state in number of new jobs for the first 11 months of 2013 and that eight other Northeast Mississippi counties were in the upper tier. That indicates the “right trajectory” on jobs in this region, and the MEC audience named advanced manufacturing, followed by health care, as the areas it sees as having the greatest economic potential for the region.

There’s reason for optimism in both – so long as Lee County and Northeast Mississippi build on and enhance their historic emphasis on the very things that MEC touts and that have spurred the region’s past success.