‘A cultural gumbo.’ How a grassroots effort to unify the Coast became a movement.

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A rising tide lifts all boats.”

It’s hard to believe we are on the doorstep of 2020.

Six years ago, an informal grass roots ideal began, focusing on how we tell our story, how we interact with one another, and most importantly, assessing how we are viewed by the outside world.

The “One Coast” concept grew from an understanding that developers and visitors see us a region — not individual cities. And that, for our distinct municipal personalities across Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, what impacts one of us, tends to impact all of us.

Intended to be unofficial, unstructured, and unencumbered, the original vision stated: “One Coast embraces the fact that our common interests far outweigh any differences, and acknowledges that there are some issues — political, cultural, tourism, beautification, sports, etc. — that can often be better served through a combined effort.”

While this brand of teamwork does not work in all situations, the overriding approach is something every local gets!

Since that time, One Coast has become a movement, with individuals, organizations, and businesses emphasizing the positive, and melding our assets into a distinctive cultural gumbo.

For many, it has resulted in a jaw-dropping experience — particularly for first timers with preconceived notions of the Magnolia State. The phrase, “I had no idea… (how wonderful the people/food/climate/beaches/entertainment/commute times/recreation amenities are),” can be heard on a daily basis.

In taking cues from cities that have successfully reinvented themselves into 21st Century tech centers and quality of life havens, one can learn from the observations of the creative economy urbanist Richard Florida, who wrote: “Successful places are intentional.

“They undertake efforts to leverage and build upon their own unique assets. They mobilize their anchor institutions, their own civic organizations, and their people. They build true public-private partnerships. And, large or small, they create a genuine quality of place that all can see and feel.”

Sound familiar?

I believe we are on the cusp of solidifying a significant trajectory for our One Coast. Ensuring success is a daily effort, and our people are starting to believe in themselves like never before — understanding the unique and diverse place in which we are fortunate to live.

Millennials are said to focus on the experience, much more than the material: To do is more important than to have. With our natural resources, culture, cost of living, and entertainment options, Gulf Coast communities have an advantage.

How the story goes from here depends largely upon how we continue to distinguish ourselves through exemplary hospitality, regional collaboration, and aggressive innovation in competing with other markets in our region.

Change of this sort does not come easily, or often, but we are now beginning to see the results of a larger collective outlook where we have had a glimpse of what the next level could look like: better schools, more family entertainment and recreational offerings, and higher paying jobs — all resulting from recent investments in education, infrastructure, resources, and our people.

It is also the result of affirming our own identity — challenging norms and refusing to stand by when pundits try to cast us as a stereotypical backwoods land mass — knowing that the positives of this region eclipse any negatives.

This persistence is starting to yield dividends, as national publications and travel sites are routinely giving us high rankings in multiple quality of life categories!

What’s next? Bookended by Stennis Space Center and Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding, and centered with strong University of Southern Mississippi institutions (Center for Oceanographic Studies, Gulf Coast Research Lab, and USM Gulf Park Campus), we are well-poised, as a region, to become the next research and development corridor for oceanographic and aerospace exploration.

State-of-the-art air and water port facilities are fully on-line, capable of accommodating growing numbers of passengers and cargo. Restaurants, hotels, multi-use developments, and recreational complexes are springing up across the Coast to take advantage of this resurgence.

Award winning military bases are models of efficiency and community relations. The merging of our tourism forces into a regional Convention and Visitors Bureau is complete and under capable leadership. A new minor league baseball stadium, expanded youth Sportsplex facilities, well-maintained beaches, updated marinas, and the Mississippi Aquarium will add family fun to the established casino market.

Hospitals are investing in facilities improvements, and a new medical city is taking shape at Tradition through a public-private partnership with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, William Carey University, and The Cleveland Clinic. Cutting edge educational facilities and advanced curriculum offerings are setting new standards for workforce training and career readiness skills.

Be sure to stay tuned for an initiative involving county-wide trades training partnerships at the high school level that will build upon Gulfport High School’s Academy-driven approach. If successfully implemented, this effort will further the mission of the Coast’s high-performing school districts, providing additional options for early career curriculum and specialized instruction for chosen career fields.

We must think regionally if we are to compete globally. Even today, there are those who would fracture the Coast for their own personal, business, political, or industry benefit — to the exclusion of our larger well-being. We can no longer tolerate that.

History will judge whether or not South Mississippi is presently enjoying a renaissance, and despite natural and man-made challenges that would bring other communities to their knees, it is refreshing to see how our resilience has enhanced the amount of interest from outside developers in our area.

Much of this is due to the character and drive of our people, and possibly due to the realization encompassed in the One Coast approach — that what benefits one, ultimately benefits all.

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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