The business leaders and community members who met in Meridian Thursday morning came from across East Mississippi, but agreed on one thing – Mississippi has an image problem.
The Mississippi Economic Council held an interactive presentation in the MSU Riley Center, one of 18 stops around the state.
The private not-for-profit organization plans to focus on strengthening Mississippi through talent retention and attraction, enhancing the state's image and growing the workforce and economy.
Participants were asked 13 questions that they were able to answer anonymously, including how they thought people outside the state viewed Mississippi's image.
All 51 voters said that view was negative.
It was the first time the response reached 100 percent, according to MEC President and CEO Scott Waller.
“I’ve never had everybody in the room voting tell me that everybody outside of Mississippi has a bad…perception of who we are,” he said, following the event. “I think I have to change that.”
The group was also asked whether the current Mississippi flag negatively impacts economic development.
Of 53 people, 21 people or 39 percent said they somewhat agreed and 14 people, or 26 percent said they somewhat disagreed.
“Our position is longstanding – we need to change the flag for a variety of reasons,” Waller said. “The economy is one of the many variety of reasons, but we feel like it hurts us from an image standpoint.”
Nearly all respondents – 94 percent – said Mississippi suffers from “brain drain,” the challenge of educated, capable workers leaving the state for better job opportunities.
Waller stressed the importance of workforce development and changing the way we think about education.
“We’ve always had this mindset that college is this four-year institution where you get a degree. That’s not the case any more, and we’ve got to change the paradigm,” he said.
Elizabeth Ford-Moore, who focuses on early childhood development at a daycare in Kemper County, said she agreed with much of what she heard in the presentation.
“I come with a unique perspective because I moved here from California,” she said. “I have a master’s degree and I also had difficulty trying to find a job and I understand a lot of the challenges that we have to overcome here...to make this place a place where people want to come to retire.”
Waller discussed how to improve the state's image, focusing on a low cost of living, improvements in the state's education system and a pro-growth mindset.
“What we hear from some of the employers is when people come to Meridian to visit, they don’t see the lifestyle as being good,” said Ward 1 City Councilman George Thomas. “We have the amenities. We don’t do a good job of letting the people know what the good things are and I think that’s one of our biggest problems.”