As he took an audience of about 300 people through several points of data, Whitfield said the information is more encouraging than it has been over the past several years.
"I've felt like the prophet of doom the last seven years," Whitfield said. "This year, I've looked at our situation, and we've had progress on several of our goals."
Held at the BancorpSouth Conference Center, the annual meeting is intended to both unify and inspire community leaders from throughout the 16-county region. This year's keynote speakers were Jim Barksdale, a longtime international business leader and the interim executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority; Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert; and education consultant Mike Ward, the former North Carolina state superintendent. Their messages focused on education and highway development.
Whitfield noted from 2000 to 2010, Northeast Mississippi's per capita income increased faster than the national average. During the period, the regional figure grew by 41.9 percent ($19,900 to $28,234), while the national number climbed by 33.8 percent ($29,845 to $39,937).
The span also saw an increase in educational attainment, Whitfield said. In 2000, 38 percent of adults age 25 and older in the region had been to college, and 31.2 percent were high school dropouts. By 2010, 44.7 percent had college experience and 23.4 percent were dropouts.
Whitfield also highlighted a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, noting that 2010 was the first time in 15 years Northeast Mississippi did not lose manufacturing jobs.
However, he said, while manufacturing volume is increasing, manufacturing jobs generally are not. The successful companies are thriving with more technology, which requires a much better educated workforce, he said.
Barksdale; a former executive for Netscape, Federal Express and McCaw Cellular/ATamp&T Wireless, spoke of the economic opportunity available to Mississippi if it could better educate students.
If the state raises its high school graduation rate by 3 percent - to 74 percent - and graduates an additional 800 university students each year, it would mean an extra $11 billion for the state every 10 years, Barksdale said.
Working for that improvement requires accountability and responsibility, he said. He encouraged participants to visit www.msreportcard.com, a website with a wealth of data about public school districts.
"Read the statistics and ask why is my district different than that district," he said. "...Demand performance."
The biggest difference maker in schools, the education philanthropist said, isn't parents or children, but is teachers, principals and district administrators.
Ward spoke about state, national and world education trends, including the move to new national curriculum standards. The standards and corresponding tests will make it much easier to compare how well students are doing in different places across the country.
"Businesses looking to locate here or deciding whether to stay here will look at that data as well," he said.
Ward also noted the percentage of the U.S. population attending college has remained stagnant over the past 17 years. The country must address this and do a better job of educating students from poor backgrounds if it is to prosper in the world marketplace, he said.
Tagert outlined the gains Northeast Mississippi has made in four-lane highway construction and also noted the region's remaining needs.
"Where you build four-lane highways, you create opportunity," he said.
He said resources for building highways have not increased over the last 25 years, making it difficult to meet the needs of all communities.
At the same time, he said, Mississippi's roads are ranked best in the Mid-South and 16th in the country by the Reason Foundation, a national authority on highway performance.