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Craig Ray And Tourism Team Bring Focus To Mississippi Bicentennial With Oxford Events

Tourism Director Craig Ray (Far Right) alongside Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson, Musician Steve Azar, Governor Phil Bryant and UM Chancellor Jeff Vitter. Photo by Steven Gagliano

After serving as the Tourism Director for the State of Mississippi under Governor Haley Barbour, current Tourism Director, Craig Ray switched gears and joined a lobbying firm in Jackson. While away from the position, he had the opportunity to become schooled on state bicentennials, and now he’s back as Tourism Director and is leading the team celebrating Mississippi’s big 200th birthday.
To gain that unique knowledge of bicentennials, it just so happens that during his time in the private sector, Craig’s firm worked on tourism projects for a variety of clients. When the state put out an RFP on how Mississippi might celebrate its own bicentennial, his firm responded.
A bit later, when Governor Phil Bryant asked him to serve as Tourism Director once again, he came in prepared for a bicentennial with all the knowledge he had gained in the RFP process.
According to Ray, the main thing he learned was that Mississippi could and should celebrate in a way that is uniquely Mississippi. And that is what his team has gone about planning for the past couple of years.
“We studied how six states celebrated the bicentennial, and we found out that there are no rules, you celebrate how you want to celebrate,” Ray said. “While the official bicentennial date is December 10, 2017, the celebration was kicked off in late 2016 as the City of Natchez, which predates the Magnolia State by 100 years, celebrated its “tricentennial.”
Since then, events have continued to take place across the state, including the Governor’s Concert at the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration South on the coast. Headlined by a concert in Gulfport that featured Mississippi musicians including “The Band Perry,” the event drew over 25,000 people to celebrate the history of Mississippi through music, art and more.
This weekend the big celebration comes to Oxford. And while the crowd may not be quite as large, Ray recognizes that every event reflects the town and the part of the state that it is in.
“What we tried to do was create an atmosphere in which everyone could celebrate in whatever way they would like to, and it has really worked great,” Ray said. “Each town and each city has its own personality, and that has played a factor in every event.”
The signature event of the North Mississippi celebration, the ticketed “Governor’s Concert at the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration North” has now been moved back from the Grove to inside the Ford Center due to the threat of inclement weather. But the full celebration this weekend includes great events around town that are open to the public, beginning with a live taping of Thacker Mountain Radio at the Lyric. The show begins at 7 p.m. with first-come-first-serve seating.
The UM Museum Family Activity Day begins on Saturday at 10 a.m. and goes until noon. Departing from the Museum, Double Decker Bus tours will take place from 11 a.m.- noon. Saturday culminates in the concert headlined by Mississippi music icon Marty Stuart, which begins at 6:30 p.m. The concert is a ticketed event only due to the limited capacity of the Ford Center.  
The celebration doesn’t end there, as the Summer Sunset Concert Series, featuring Blackwater Trio, will take place at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday.
While celebrations are a vital part of the bicentennial, Ray and his staff have worked to involve the whole state in the process. Over 90 ideas submitted from around the state benefitted from $450,000 in grant funds that were appropriated to get the communities involved in the bicentennial.
“We were able to fund some really creative and innovative ideas that are allowing communities around the state to make their own contribution to the Bicentennial, celebrating in a way that fits their community,” Ray said. “Those events and ideas will become a part of the archive of how Mississippi celebrated our 200th birthday.”
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so my approach has been, ‘let’s give it everything we’ve got,’” Ray said. “My daughter is 10, and she’ll be around to say ‘look what my dad was a part of.’ Everything that we’ve done with this celebration and the events funded by the grants that we’ve awarded will be in the history books, so it’s important that we get it right.”
All of the bicentennial celebrations will conclude in Jackson the weekend of December 8-11, 2017, with a parade and the opening of two new museums that will be important to the preservation and study of Mississippi’s history moving forward. It was strategically planned that the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History will open on the very day of Mississippi’s Bicentennial birthday, Dec. 10.
Campus which will house the new Civil Rights and History Museums in Jackson, MS. Photo courtesy of Give2mississippimuseums.com

Celebrating the state’s past, and its potential for the future, have been the mindset of Ray and the rest of the tourism department throughout the bicentennial process.
“200 years of statehood; a lot has happened in those 200 years,” he said. “Some difficult things have happened, some great things, things are happening now and things that will happen, and that’s what this year of events is all about,” Ray said.
For more information and a full schedule of Bicentennial events visit the tourism department’s website by clicking here

Steven Gagliano is the managing editor of HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at steven.gagliano@hottytoddy.com
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