While many often simplify Oxford as nothing but a college town or a destination for sporting and social events, the city is hoping to boost its standing as a tourism destination in the future.
Lafayette County tourism projects recently received more than $79,000 in grant funds from the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance to further the industry through various methods.
The alliance acts as local coordination for the National Heritage Area, which was established by Congress in 2009. The land the group aims to protect and promote covers 19 full counties and parts of 11 others, defined mostly by the intersection of Appalachian and Delta cultures.
“The alliance funds local and regional projects, which help it fulfill the goals and objectives in its management plan, which was approved by the National Park Service in 2014,” said Mary Cates Williams, executive director of the alliance.
The management plan explains the group’s dedication to honoring and interpreting the stories of legendary natives like Elvis Presley, William Faulkner and James Meredith.
“This is the third year of the alliance’s Community Grant Program, and in March, the organization awarded over 30 grants totaling more than $250,000,” Williams said. “The alliance awarded seven grants in the LOU area, totaling $79,720.”
The local recipients of these grants include Visit Oxford, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, the Oxford Film Festival, the Oxford Lafayette Heritage Foundation, the L.Q.C. Lamar Foundation, the City of Oxford and the University of Mississippi itself.
“We received a $5,000 grant for a hospitality program called ‘Treat ‘Em Right,’” said Mary Allyn Hedges, the director of Visit Oxford.
The Mississippi Tourism Association already uses this program, but Hedges said it plans to adapt the training videos and hospitality certification test to be specific to Oxford.
“Our hope is to have all of the hoteliers and attractions and retailers and restaurants to get their employees to participate and get certified because they are the ones on the front lines,” she said. “We want all employees to have resources that can help them answer those types of questions for us.”
Hedges said there will be several improvements in Oxford using the grant money.
“The Burns-Belfry will complete their core exhibit that they have there. The exhibit presents the African-American experience over time with an emphasis in northern Mississippi,” she said.
Williams also said the university was awarded $19,720 to fund a project for the Slavery Research Group at Rowan Oak. With the money, it will perform archeological research to help better understand the lives of African-Americans who lived and worked on the property.
Hedges explained that the L.Q.C. Lamar House was one of several grant recipients that were only eligible for consideration because of their partnership with Visit Oxford, a longtime member of the alliance.
“The Lamar House is using their grant for the L.Q.C. Lamar Historical Trail to link Oxford to other communities in the Mississippi Hills region using a series of new and existing historical markers,” she said.
Ultimately, Hedges said there is a lot of crossover as far as how and where the grant money is being used, but it is all being used with great purpose.
“Obviously, the university – with football games and different conferences they have going on and graduation – is a major driver that impacts tourism significantly,” Hedges said. “We want to show people that they should come here 365 days a year, not just a handful of weekends.”