In the Deep South, a race not to be last

Mississippi and Arkansas take decidedly different paths to boost their economic and social standing.

A competition is brewing across the Mississippi River: Arkansas versus Mississippi.

It's not so much a contest about which is producing the most astrophysicists. Nor which is No. 1 in the nation in economic clout. Nor even whether the Razorbacks will field a better team on the diamond this spring than Ole Miss.

This competition is about a far less exalted distinction: which state, more often than not, can avoid being ranked near the bottom in the US in a variety of indicators - from healthcare to educational achievement to poverty rates.

On one level, it is a contest over pride and image. But beneath the rhetoric is an enduring quest by both states to tangibly boost their social and economic standings.

The two states are, however, pursuing different strategies to avoid being dubbed the Rodney Dangerfield of America - the state that doesn't get any respect.

Mississippi is aggressively trying to move up. With the help of major investments, it's trying to hone a more glamorous, urban image. It's even making a play for the New Orleans Saints to move to the Gulf Coast.

Arkansas, on the other hand, says slow but steady, not hip and big league, wins the race. Many say the time is ripe to seize on the state's onetime slogan, Land of Opportunity.

Who is moving faster is the source of much debate, and even has Louisiana pausing over its bouilla-baisee. But the governors of the two states - Ronnie Musgrove (D) of Mississippi and Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas - are taking a polite Southern approach as they maneuver to make their state rise above the other in surveys and statistics.

"I thank God for Mississippi in one sense," says Mr. Huckabee. "When Mississippi is doing well, the whole region is strengthened. It's good for all of us."

Our car plants are bigger than yours

Last fall, Mississippi landed a $1 billion Nissan plant, which will directly create 4,000 jobs, plus some 20,000 peripheral ones. Rumors persist about the Saints relocating to a new state-of-the-art stadium there. Recently, the king and queen of Spain visited the Magnolia State to see the largest exhibit of Spanish artifacts ever assembled.

"You don't go to the Top 10 overnight," says Mr. Musgrove. "The real sign is the direction a state is headed, and Mississippi is starting to show the signs of a much improved quality of life for our people."

Last year the Mississippi legislature met in special session twice - first approving Musgrove's package of tax incentives and training programs for job development, then enhancing it with $295 million in incentives to entice Nissan. Musgrove also wants to wire every town and classroom to the Internet. He says the classroom part of the dream - a joint public and private venture - should be completed by next year.

Arkansas isn't being completely nonchalant while all this happens. Last month, Lockheed Martin announced a new facility in the southern part of the state that will provide about 200 jobs at an average annual salary of some $50,000. Much of the state's economic prowess, though, stems from what it already has: four companies listed among the Fortune 500, including the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart.

Still, as both states drive to become part of the New South, vestiges of the old continue to surface, complicating change. Most visible at the moment, in Mississippi, is the enduring flag dispute.

This month, voters will decide whether to keep the state's old flag, which has a Confederate symbol embedded in the corner, or a adopt new flag that erases any sign of its Civil War past.

"I think you will see the new flag go down in flames," says William Shughart, a economist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "It could embarrass the state. That vote could throw it all back, showing that Mississippi doesn't want to change."

Let's look at the numbers

For now, Arkansas holds the edge over Mississippi in several economic categories. Its gross state product grew faster than Mississippi's between 1990 and 1998. Per-capita income is still higher in Arkansas. Nonfarm employment grew faster in the 1990s, a sign of a shift away from agriculture. The unemployment rate is also marginally lower: Last month, it fell to 4.1 percent, moving below the national average, now at 4.3 percent.

But Arkansas's average income is overblown, to some degree, because a large number of wealthy executives from Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, Dillard's, and Alltel live there. In turn, Mississippi's median household income is higher.

While the two states parry over economic numbers, they are taking other steps to upgrade jobs that could affect their futures. Teachers in Mississippi, for example, will receive a $10,000 pay raise next year. In Arkansas, Huckabee was expected to sign a measure today that will give teachers a $3,000 raise.

Mississippi, however, is facing a budget shortfall this year, leading analysts to wonder if it is doing as well as perceived.

In one other key category, tourism, Mississippi still draws more visitors than Arkansas - primarily because of its 32 Las Vegas-style casinos. They have taken in more than $15 billion since opening in 1992.

Arkansas trumpets its state motto, the Natural State, in trying to lure outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy camping, hiking, and boating - often activities in which spending is low.

Will those Saints come marching in?

Yet, in the end, perception counts, and on this front, Mississippi is doing well, analysts say. Jeff Collins, director of the University of Arkansas's Center for Business and Economic Research at Fayetteville, says the state is definitely "making some headway."

It may even be enough to entice New Orleans's beloved Saints. "I wouldn't dismiss it," state Rep. Mitch Landrieu (D) of New Orleans told a Baton Rouge magazine recently. "It's a real threat."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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