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Mississippi emerges from poverty and a divisive past

While there's still much to do, residents say they see the state

"Thank goodness for Mississippi."

that quip was once heard frequently in Arkansas. For years, Mississippi stalled at the bottom of nearly every economic and quality-of-life ranking, while Arkansas pulled in at No. 49.

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But these days, Mississippi is a state transforming. Visitors can see some of the signs of change through their car windows - like the new distribution centers for Williams Sonoma and Dollar General. Residents can see other indicators in their bank statements - they had the largest increase in disposable income of any state in the US in 1998.

Yet more than that, it's just a general feeling that while there's still a long way to go, things are getting better.

Indeed, more people are coming to Mississippi - to see a state steeped in spanish moss and storytelling, to visit one of the casinos, or to play golf along the Gulf - and many residents say that's a mark that Mississippi is State No. 50 no longer.

"Mississippi has become a hotbed," says Marc Smirnoff, a transplanted Northerner who edits the Oxford American, a cultural magazine published in Oxford. "It's still quaint enough to be quaint, but Oxford has just exploded. You can barely afford a home here anymore."

"This town inspired me to start the magazine," he adds. "The growth of the magazine is a reflection of what is going on throughout the state."

Long overshadowed by a divisive past and characterized by images of shanties in cotton fields and Rebel-flag bumper stickers on beat-up pickup trucks, Mississippi is now starting to show that it has other sides, as well. During the past decade, state officials have put an increased emphasis on promoting the state's positives.

"We didn't even have a budget to buy an ad in magazines seven years ago," says Buddy Bynum, public-affairs director for the Department of Economic and Community Development.

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Last year, tourism generated $5.1 billion. Coastal resorts have become increasingly popular, and small towns such as Oxford have drawn visitors to their historic squares and marketplaces.

The state has also touted its literary pedigree as the home of some the greatest American writers - from William Faulkner to Eudora Welty. More recently, the phenomenal success of John Grisham's novels have helped paint the Magnolia State into the nation's cultural tableau.

"It's the best time in the world to be living in Mississippi," says Tim Ford, Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. "Times are changing."

His exuberance is supported by several statistics. Last year, the state led the nation in business start-ups. From 1987 to 1996, it ranked fifth in the nation for reducing the number of families receiving federal cash assistance. And during the past decade, its per capita income growth rate has exceeded the national average.

"Mississippians have more opportunities now than ever before," says Gov. Kirk Fordice, who in 1992 became the first GOP governor here since Reconstruction.

But Mississippi also had nowhere to go but up. Even last year, it had the lowest per capita income in the United States - $6,484 for whites and an alarming $2,833 for nonwhites.

The numbers illustrate a growing gap between poor areas such as the Delta and boomtowns such as Biloxi and Jackson.

"It is an usual mix of economic activity and continued economic decline," says Ted Ownby, a history professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Part of the credit for turning around cities like Biloxi and Tunica should go to the introduction of gambling, some Mississippians say. Although it has fierce opposition, the industry now contributes $2 billion annually to the state's economy and has drawn gamblers from nearby states.

Still, even as the state takes steps toward greater prosperity, some residents are wary of getting too excited.

"It is improving," says Eric Webb of Cleveland, Miss. "Life does get better as technology grows, but the poor economy here does not allow advancements as quickly as other places. Mississippi will always lag behind the rest of the nation."

Perhaps Faulkner summed up his fellow Mississippians' feelings best. "You don't love because: you love despite."

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