GULFPORT -- Tourism is the greatest economic opportunity for the state, said those who attended the Mississippi Economic Council Pathway to Progress Tour on Thursday at the Great Southern Club.
They chose tourism over health care, education and several other options and expressed their opinions by electronic vote.
"Would you believe that in some parts of the state (tourism) doesn't even show up?" said Blake Wilson, director of the MEC.
That is the purpose of the Pathway to Progress, a 19-city tour that started in November and this week visited Picayune, Bay St. Louis and Gulfport. The tour will continue Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
The tour emphasizes the importance of education, transportation, tourism and a creative economy throughout every part of Mississippi.
"It's about reaching across the state and making it happen," Wilson said.
Blueprint Mississippi, a long-range plan for making the state more economically competitive, began in 2003 under the chairmanship of Anthony Topazi, former chairman of Mississippi Power and the Southern Company.
James "Dan" Rollins III, CEO of BancorpSouth and Blueprint Mississippi's current chairman, told the Rotary Club and Coast Chamber members Thursday, "We have to be smarter, faster, better" to put Mississippi in a place of greatest opportunity.
This year, a major competitiveness analysis will look at how Mississippi compares with other states in the region. Wilson said a separate analysis will be conducted on Mississippi's casino industry as competition has become fierce among states.
Another focus this year is improving Mississippi's transportation system.
"We think something needs to be done with our roads and bridges," said Charlie Williams, former state representative, now director of the T1 Coalition. He said 80 percent of the state's major roads need repair and 50 percent of the bridges in the Delta have weight limitations or should be posted, but are vital to move products in and out. He said the state continues to borrow money from the Mississippi Department of Transportation fuel tax and he advocates paying it back over the next three years to maintain the infrastructure.
Those who attended the Gulfport tour ranked educational achievement as a top priority for the state, as had other tour attendees around the state. The votes also showed 39 percent believe Mississippi is a state that can't escape a negative perception, but in 10 years, 34 percent said it will be perceived as a newly emerging growth state.