MSU-sponsored ‘Yourtown’ workshop teaches collaboration

Mississippi State’s John C. Stennis Institute for Government and Community Development continues to educate the state’s small-town community and civic leaders about the latest methods for spurring economic development and quality-of-life improvements.

Staff members of the university institute recently held another in its popular “YourTown, Miss.” interactive workshop series for elected officials, tourism representatives, business owners, community volunteers, Main Street Association members and economic development representatives.

Nearly 40 people from some two dozen Magnolia State communities attended.

“The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that citizens need to take pride and ownership in their town,” said Keisha Bogan of Okolona. “We have to look for the opportunities for us to take care of it ourselves.”

Bogan is affiliated with Okolona’s North Mississippi AmeriCorps VISTA Project that works to increase parental involvement and empowerment locally. The workshop demonstrated how citizens invested in their communities are better prepared to accept opportunities—especially economic development or tourism expansion—as they arise, she emphasized.

Phil Nanney, executive director of the Union County Development Association, agreed. He has attended the YourTown workshop for the past three years and plans to be back in 2014, he said. Concepts he’s learned are making a difference in New Albany, he explained.

“We’ve been able to pool our resources and have started to do some wayfaring signage,” Nanney said. “New Albany and Union County have so many wonderful things that people don’t know about, but at YourTown, we learn to see the broad picture of what our town can really be like if we work together.”

This fall, community leaders will gather for a local design charrette, Nanney said. That meeting will involve a presentation of branding design ideas to link community organizations and tourist opportunities, using a logo unique to Union County, he added.

Brand design creation is among several YourTown activities. From a wide range of guest speakers and collaborative exercises, participants learn how to address a variety of common issues, including struggling downtown commercial areas, newly built highway bypasses and identification of the best guidance for future development.

While the training involves fictional towns, Stennis leaders said common topics can apply to any rural community. In addition, MSU has resources available to assist municipalities in embracing their uniqueness and expanding economic opportunities.

“We want to help by going into these communities,” said Taze Fulford, MSU associate professor of landscape architecture. “We want our students to be out there working on a real site and making communities better places.”

Joe Fratesi, the institute’s project director, expressed appreciation to participants for their hard work, as well as those making presentations. He quoted Richard Moe, former director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to remind the audience how community improvements can only happen when residents are invested in outcomes.

“‘Communities can be shaped by choice or they can be shaped by chance. You can keep on accepting the kinds of communities that you get, or you can start creating the kind of communities you want,’” he said. “That’s what we hope you’ve learned here.”

For additional information about “YourTown, Miss.” and other Stennis Institute community development programs, telephone 662-325-6703 or visit www.sig.msstate.edu/programs.php.

For more about MSU, see www.msstate.edu.