A bill was ratified by Congress and signed by President Obama has designated the Mississippi Delta as a National Heritage Area.

National Heritage Area designation will focus expertise of the National Park Service and resources of the U.S. Department of Interior on a cultural and heritage tourism initiative for the 18-Delta and part-Delta counties of the Mississippi Delta.

Events and personalities from the Delta which have influenced literature, music, civil rights, the arts, Native Americans, and the Civil War will gain prominence in the heritage and cultural inventory of the region.

“Behind the leadership of Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (H.R. 146), which establishes the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area,” said Tom Gresham, a Sunflower County, Miss., businessman who serves as chairman of the Development Department board of directors for Delta Council.

The Senate, with the support of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., passed the legislation in early January.

Gresham pointed out that Thompson worked closely with both senators and Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss., (the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area of northeast Mississippi was also approved in the Public Land Management Act).

“The close coordination and persistence of our Mississippi congressional delegation over the past two years is a testament to their leadership and effectiveness. We think this designation holds a lot of potential in allowing the Delta to focus on some regional initiatives that can eventually enhance tourism opportunities and tell our story to the world,” Gresham said.

The National Park Service began designating National Heritage Areas in 1984 to encourage economic growth through tourism, preserve and promote cultural and natural resources, and provide educational opportunities about a region’s cultural and physical landscape. There are currently only 37 National Heritage Areas in the country.

A steering entity comprised of representatives from universities, state agencies, cultural interests, and local participants from the 18 Delta and part-Delta counties will begin coordinating a strategy to inventory and research components that could be included in the National Heritage Area designation. It will present a full report in the next couple years to the National Parks Service.

Once that report is approved, the region will be able to carry out specific initiatives related to cultural and heritage tourism, and to compete for further funding opportunities.