By: Haskel Burns

Hattiesburg native Michael Marks can add another accomplishment to his already impressive list of achievements: the new president of the Downtown Hattiesburg Association.

That announcement was at the DHA’s annual meeting, which was held in April at the Historic Hattiesburg Train Depot. Marks’ term will last one year, at which point the organization’s next president will be named.

“I’m pretty excited,” Marks said. “Hattiesburg has buzz, as they say – we are a hot property, and that is owing to a lot of partnerships with the city and with (Forrest) County.

“Downtown is bursting out all over, and I’m just pleased to be a part of the leadership to sort of guide us through 2022 with all the accomplishments that are going on.”

Marks, who currently serves as national executive director of Schools Against Vaping, was instructor of theater for more than 20 years at Hattiesburg High School. He directed more than 50 productions, including The Wiz, which played at the International Theatre Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Under his direction, Music Theater International selected Hattiesburg High School as America’s Best High School Performing Arts Department. His theater students have originated roles in national shows from Broadway’s Hairsprayto Marvel’s Black Pantherto NCIS: New Orleans. Hattiesburg High Thespians became the first high school in America to establish a chapter of Equity Fights AIDS on its campus.

As a debate coach at Hattiesburg High, Marks qualified students to national tournaments in every event. His mock trial teams claimed eight state championships and an equal number Top Ten finishes in national competition.

In addition, Marks has served on the Deep South District Committee, chaired The Mississippi District, served as a national parliamentarian for the National Speech and Debate Association), and founded the Biloxi Catholic Forensic League.

As a playwright, his Hattiesburg High School docudrama, The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water, toured the continental United States, including a performance in Dallas at the National Forensics League Tournament. The production also performed for Congress and received the NEA’s National Human and Civil Rights award. The show was recently revived for the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and to date has generated over $400,000 in relief benefits for natural disaster victims throughout the country.

As former president of The Mississippi Association of Educators, Marx once negotiated a 36 percent pay raise for Mississippi’s educators. As former executive officer of the 3.3-million-member National Education Association, he was responsible for the National Read Across America Program. 

He represented America at The Education International Conference in Berlin, keynoted the India Teachers Conference and championed diversity via workshops he presented in Barbados. In addition, he served as national treasurer of The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and chaired the Hattiesburg Mayoral Health Council. He also chaired the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education and Sales & Marketing Professionals’ Pinnacle Awards.

A founding director and former president of The Miss Mississippi Pageant Local Directors Association, Marx holds the distinction of having his contestants win the state title a record four times. In addition, he directed the Miss Mississippi Troupe and served as talent coach for Mississippi’s last national winner. In addition to a Miss America title, his former students have also included an America’s Distinguished Young Woman and Miss Teen of America.

When funding was recently cut from the Hattiesburg High School Debate Team, he organized Speak Up, Hattiesburg, a community-built coalition that raised $16,000 to keep the speech and debate team on the road. Speech and debate coaches from across the country recognized his efforts with their Josephine Dukes National Teacher of the Year distinction. 

A member of the Public Relations Association of Mississippi, Marx is co-author of the book Katrina: Ten Years After and serves on the boards of Promote the Vote, the Family YMCA of Southeast Mississippi, Southern Miss Partners for the Arts, and the Mississippi Miss Hospitality Competition. He is secretary of the Pine Belt Foundation and CEO for the educational and arts consulting firm Stage, Style & Study, LLC.

In May 2021, Marks was selected to the National Speech & Debate Association Hall of Fame, established in 1977 to honor almost a century of exceptional teaching and coaching of speech activities. 

As the new DHA president, he will seek ways to improve the economic vitality of downtown Hattiesburg.

“Our various committees are meeting now to discuss what their goals are going to be for the year,” Marks said. “Of course, we want to stand by our merchants and make sure that they’re a vital part (of downtown).

“We love the fact that coming out of the (COVID-19) pandemic … that people are coming back to downtown. It’s where you live and what you love.”

Over the past five years downtown Hattiesburg has seen 34 new business open, which created 136 direct jobs. Hundreds of residential units are also slated to be completed in the next three years.  

“I think the future of downtown is great,” Marks said. “When people come here from around the country, they tend to come back and stay.

“Everything that’s happening at (Hattiesburg) City Hall, everything that’s happening with the (Forrest County) Board of Supervisors and the merchants that are downtown, it’s just a phenomenal synergy right now. I just believe that Hattiesburg is on the precipice of greatness.”