TUPELO • The Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area – one of only three in the state and 55 nationwide – celebrated its 10-year anniversary Tuesday.
Supporters and members of the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance gathered at the Mississippi Hills Exhibit Center at the Renasant Center for IDEAs, which is the official coordinating entity for the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area.
The exhibit center also serves as the touching-off point to the Area and a clearing house of information for tourists and visitors.
“This has been a good phase one welcome center for the region, and at some point we’d like to have a larger free-standing facility with more exhibit space and perhaps a gift shop and a cafe,” said Kent Bain, the program coordinator for Alliance. “That’s a huge project to tackle and not something we wanted to do in our first 10 years because it would absorb so much of our time and attention.”
Instead, the first decade was spent helping communities across the Hills region tell their stories and get the word out on what they had to offer.
During that span, MHNHA has brought more than $1.7 million in federal funding to the Hills region, awarded more than $700,000 to 20 communities through its Community Grant Program, and funded nearly $50,000 in special projects.
“We want to extend a special thanks to everyone who helped us get to where we are today,” said Mary Cates Williams, executive director for the Alliance. “The National Park Service, Natchez Trace Parkway, CREATE Foundation, Appalachian Regional Commission, Community Development Foundation, University of Mississippi, Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division, Mississippi Legislature as well as current and past members were all instrumental in helping us achieve this milestone.”
The Alliance was formed in 2004 with initial funding by the CREATE Foundation, and two years later established an office in the Renasant Center for IDEAs. In April of 2009, with support from U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, the region was designated by Congress as a National Heritage Area. The Alliance includes all or parts of 30 counties bordered by Tennessee, Alabama, Highway 82 and Interstate 55.
The mission focuses for the Mississippi Hills are African-American heritage, Civil War, Native American heritage and Music and Literature.
In 2011, the Alliance opened its Exhibit Center, and in September of 2014 their federally-mandated Management Plan was approved by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. Two years later, Williams was hired as full-time executive director, and the Community Grant Program was started. In 2017, the Alliance established a second office in the Innovation Hub at Insight Park on the University of Mississippi campus.
“Oxford has been involved with the heritage area since the beginning, and we are happy to help the Alliance commemorate this special occasion,” said Mary Allyn Hedges, director of Visit Oxford and the current president of the Alliance. “We’re grateful for what the Alliance has been able to accomplish thus far with the support of our partners, and we are equally excited to see what the next decade holds for us.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, a recently completed strategic plan was revealed, which was formally adopted by the Alliance’s board of directors at its June meeting. Plans are in the works for an Official Sites, Attractions & Events program and a Trails & Corridors initiative.
“As we look ahead, we are also introducing a new look,” said Williams. “We have a new logo, new video and new photography to support the marketing of the heritage area. In the coming months, we will be updating and upgrading our website and introducing new print materials.”
Also as part of the new strategic plan, the Alliance also will be expanding its committees and subcommittees to involve more communities in the area.
“We want more people to know who we are and what we do and how we can bring them in,” she said.
Jill Smith, director of the Union County Heritage Museum and vice president of the Alliance, said the grants made available to the communities have been beneficial.
“We’re all in this together and we all benefit from it,” she said. “There are going to be so many seeds planted through the area that we can’t even know it all right now. But this has given us an opportunity to do all we do ... it means so much to all of us.”