Where You Are

A smiling woman in a blue shirt stands in front of a wall mural.
Vaunita Martin, director of the Itawamba County Development Council

Sustaining the Trajectory

Itawamba County develops “roadmap” to continue, expand economic development

Story by Leah Barbour • Photos by Kevin Hudson

Vaunita Martin cares so much about the rural county where she attended Itawamba Community College that she’s made a career out of making it an even better place.

For the past 8 years, Martin has been the director and face of the Itawamba County Development Council (ICDC). She works to promote business and economic development in her county’s three municipalities— Fulton, Mantachie, and Tremont. Until early 2020, her efforts progressed slowly but steadily.

“The pandemic changed everything!” Martin shares. “There’s been an astronomical increase in revenue over the last 2 years. It’s been crazy good. New businesses keep opening; I met with two possible new businesses yesterday. COVID precipitated everything, because people are shopping local.”

In fact, Itawamba County’s restaurant sector has grown by $10 million over the past 5 years, including the past 2 years of the pandemic, says Dr. Rachael Carter, Mississippi State University Extension Service economist and market analyst. She and Martin worked together with the county Extension agent to promote local farmers markets in the county.

Amid this fantastic growth during the pandemic, Martin developed a new concern: How could Itawamba County sustain it?

Joining the Mississippi Main Street Association had been a long-time goal, Martin says, and in 2021 ICDC joined, uniting all three municipalities under its county-wide Itawamba Main Street banner. Main Street offers newly designated members a Roadmap Resource Team visit to develop a strategic framework—a “roadmap”—with prioritized recommendations and specific implementation tactics for economic growth and revitalization to guide the next 3 to 5 years.

Since Itawamba Main Street is a county-wide program with three communities, the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area was an additional funding partner for the week-long team visit. Carter was one of several community revitalization experts on the team.

“When the Main Street Roadmap Resource Team comes to a town, it brings experts in planning, architectural design, urban design, promotion, event management, tourism, and market analysis,” Carter says. “When you get all those voices, the town gets a holistic perspective of what needs to happen. The roadmap is really a strategic plan to guide community revitalization.”

Extension brings expertise in economics and market analysis to our community. Now we have a plan, and we know what it takes to continue our success.

— Vaunita Martin

Itawamba County’s plan includes a community economic profile developed by Extension, a strategy board to serve as an implementation guideline, and a multipage work plan. Receiving the expert advice in this form is a game changer, Martin emphasizes.

“For me, it’s most important to have a doable dream, a dream that can be broken into bite-sized pieces that we can do little by little to get where we want to be,” Martin explains. “This process is a good investment because it shows us the steps to take. The power of visualizing what we want to see our community become has sold our community on this plan.”

The economic profile Carter created offers Martin immediate insights into where local people are spending money and what businesses Itawamba County might consider recruiting to keep even more shopping local.

“The Extension Service brings that expertise in economics and market analysis that I don’t have. We’re taking advantage of what they have to offer,” she says. “Working with Dr. Carter has been very eye-opening; the numbers show what we’re doing right and where we still have work to do.

“You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken, but, with this information from the Extension Service, we can change,” Martin adds. “Now, we have a plan, and we know what it takes to continue and maintain our success.”

In 2022, Mississippi Main Street will complete work plan workshops for all 48 Main Street communities in the state, allowing Extension to provide a locally specific economic and market analysis to each town. The 2021 workshops were funded by the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area, and the 2022 workshops are funded by a 2-year, $267,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, with additional support from the Mississippi Development Authority.

To learn more about Itawamba Main Street, please visit Mississippi Main Street’s website.

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Extension Matters Volume 8 Number 2 Cover.