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Retiring the Mississippi state flag is an image-booster money 'could not buy,' leaders say

Gulfport Sun Herald logo Gulfport Sun Herald 6/30/2020 By Anita Lee, The Sun Herald

A state flag that telegraphed hate because of its Confederate emblem contradicted Mississippi’s slogan as the “hospitality state.”

Now that the flag is about to come down, business leaders and economic developers are brimming with optimism over the marketing and economic development opportunities.

The Legislature, they say, removed a big barrier to attracting new business and industry to the state.

“In my opinion, what the Legislature did yesterday is one of the most positive economic development actions the state has ever taken,” said Ashley Edwards, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council.

“What that could mean for our economy and for the livelihoods of our citizens, and all of those in the next generation we want to keep in Mississippi, is that they will have opportunities the generation before them never had.”

Under pressure from a growing number of business, religious, athletic and other groups, plus citizens pushing for change, the Mississippi House and Senate voted Sunday to retire the 1894 flag. It was the last in the nation with a Confederate battle emblem.

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Right after the vote, the flag came down from the state Capitol. By Monday morning, more and more local governments were lowering the state flag from poles at public buildings.

“We’re not even 24 hours from the last vote being taken,” said Scott Waller, president and CEO of the statewide chamber, the Mississippi Economic Council. “What it has told us is, we’re going to have a lot of opportunities. Where are we going to go with this?”

What the MS state flag said

The state flag created a competitive disadvantage for Mississippi, in that people outside the state saw it as a symbol of intolerance and lack of diversity, business leaders say.

TIP Strategies Inc., based in Austin, Texas, worked for several months on an economic development strategy for the Coast. The GCBC was interested in how to attract and keep young people.

“What we discovered was the question of the flag was a question of how much the community would welcome diversity,” said TIP managing director Jon Roberts.

“We weren’t entering a debate about U.S. history or the Confederacy. Our job was to say how this is going to influence companies moving to the Coast and what barriers we would face.”

“The perception of the young people, in particular, that companies would want to recruit was that (the flag) symbolized an indifference to the diversity those young people were seeking.”

The MEC’s Waller said the economic developers he talked to in Mississippi indicated the flag was becoming more and more of an impediment when trying to attract business. MEC has advocated a new flag since at least 2000.

“Some companies didn’t even want to look at Mississippi because of the flag,” Waller said. “It had gotten to the point that is was becoming more and more prevalent.”

Edwards of the GCBC agreed that the flag was a major sticking point for outside investors and for the Coast’s tourism industry.

“What we hear from them is that they don’t understand the various arguments and debates of history,” Edwards said. “They don’t understand the things that some of the proponents of the flag would say about it.

“All they see is a symbol in popular culture used to represent the worst of humanity.

“When they see that flag flying proudly over our government buildings and memorials, it gives them a great deal of pause. The same thing is true when we’re trying to bring in visitors to our state.

Moving past symbols to economic growth

George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer magnified conversations about racism and built momentum for change across the nation.

Now, Mississippi has taken a big step toward change, Edwards said. He was elated when he browsed the internet after Sunday’s vote and found headlines from around the nation and world about the Legislature voting to retire the flag.

“This is a level of positive news about the state that you could not buy,” he said. “What people see around the country right now is the pause, and they hear a story about a state that has decided to step out and be part of the change America is talking about.

“This is tremendous in terms of the story we want to tell for our state.”

Economic developers are already thinking about marketing strategies moving forward — including a new slogan and logo for the state.

They also say Mississippi now needs to move beyond symbols and work on systemic change.

Waller believes workforce training should capitalize on Mississippi’s diverse population.

“We’ve still got work to do,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re creating economic opportunities for all our citizens.”

“We can truly increase competitiveness and make a difference.

“We’ve got to make sure we now take this to the next level and continue to grow our economy and continue to grow opportunities here in Mississippi.”


©2020 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)

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