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Governors ride storm away from UWA; summit goes on

It was fitting, in a sense, that turbulent weather kept Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour from attending a summit to bring their respective states together.

Early morning showers apparently caused both Riley and Barbour to cancel their much anticipated appearances in a region that has been stormed with economic poverty for the past three decades.

Riley and Barbour both expressed their regret at being unable to attend, and both joined the conference via telephone to make remarks to a crowd of more than 600 that gathered for the second annual Leadership Summit.

“I really regret I’m not there,” Barbour said. Riley echoed those sentiments.

The purpose of the summit was to discuss a joint project between East Mississippi and West Alabama. The partnership, according to both governors, may be the cure to solving the economic troubles of the diminished region.

“Rather than competing against each other like we did on Nissan, we need a collaborative effort that combines our resources,” Riley said. “Together, we can offer infrastructure improvements, transportation improvements and incentives that give us a chance to have an economic revival for the entire area.”

Barbour, the recently elected Republican governor of Mississippi, vowed to continue the work of former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who helped initiate this project with Riley in June 2003.

“I’m used to joint relationship with Alabama,” Barbour quipped. “My wife, Marsha, was born in Selma… and that Alabama-Mississippi relationship has worked our real well for the past 32 years.”

While both governors gave general comments about the bi-state project, neither had specific programs that will spur the East Mississippi-West Alabama alliance.

The Commission on the Future of East Mississippi and West Alabama was introduced to an audience that spilled into another room. Dr. Phil Sutphin, president of East Central Community College in Mississippi, will chair the commission made up of 40 leaders in the bi-state region.

“We’re working on the specifics,” Sutphin said. “First we need to look at the basic things in our area. We need to get some data.”

Thomas Moore, a Demopolis city councilman and member of the newly formed commission, said the key ingredient to making a bi-state alliance work is having state leaders who care about the project.

“We’ve got to get the legislatures to buy into it,” he said. “We can’t be so territorial; we have to think more regional.”

Ken Tucker, a member of the Marengo County Commission, said having plans just the first step.

“The key is action,” he said. “There are so many bright people in this room, and we’ve gotten real good at doing things like this.”