In May, Blake A. Wilson took over as president of the Mississippi Economic Council, a post Bob Pittman held for 32 years.
Wilson recently worked at the Florida Chamber of Commerce, where he was executive vice president. In the position, he developed a sophisticated grass roots member legislative action program, including a tool where 12,000 faxes could be faxed to business leaders around the state in less than three minutes.
Recently, Wilson talked to the Mississippi Business Journal about his plans to incorporate a similar system in Mississippi, trends in economic development and challenges for the Mississippi Economic Council.
Mississippi Business Journal: How important is the role the Mississippi Economic Council plays in the overall economic development picture in the state of Mississippi?
Blake Wilson: It`s a very important role, one we`ve fulfilled for almost 50 years. Our role is not to be the nuts and bolts folks going out to industry in the state. That`s the job of (Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development).
We look at ourselves as the product development folks. We are the people who are in charge of making certain the business climate is appropriate to attract new industry, that the taxes are in good shape, that the regulatory burden is fair, that the school systems are being positioned properly, and that government is operating efficiently.
Historically, looking back over the positions MEC has taken, they are the examples of ways the MEC has worked to improve the business climate.
The end result is that the nuts and bolts economic development people (MDECD), the people who are really the sales force, have a better product to sell.
MBJ: On a broad scale, what`s on your agenda?
BW: Our big agenda now is to rebuild the grass roots strength of the MEC. Our advantage is that MEC truly is a member-driven organization. We have an 88-member board of directors representing 20 regions all over the state. We need to reinvigorate volunteer involvement and, with organization, broaden it to an even larger group. The result will be a truly grass-roots organization that can represent business with a specific purpose.
We`re looking to set up a state-of-the-art computer network that will link every community in the state directly to Jackson by fax and e-mail. This will enable us to literally connect businesses to Jackson and give people a meaningful voice in government without ever leaving their desks.
And today, that is so important because companies are downsizing and striving for more efficiency.
People just don`t have time to drive a couple of hours to attend a one hour meeting, so MEC is reaching out electronically by using conference calls for committee meetings, for example, so we can literally break down regional barriers of the state and give people a chance to participate.
In addition, we are redoubling our efforts that Bob Pittman started by holding regional meetings all over the state. We have completed eight or nine town sessions where we have met with 30 to 35 business people and talked about where their community is going, what needs to be done, and what has to happen. This is part of our grass roots business agenda.
MBJ: What are some of the strengths in our business climate?
BW: One of our greatest strengths is that we are very broad-based. We have small businesses, bankers, utilities, manufacturers, service industries, and a good geographical distribution all throughout the state. If we can harness this energy and speak with a single, unified voice, just think of the tremendous forward movement we could make.
MBJ: Bob Pittman was at MEC for 32 years. Does that present special challenges to you?
BW: When it comes to the business community of the state, Bob Pittman`s an icon. One of his tremendous strengths is that he spent a number of years as a statewide newspaper reporter before he took over MEC from M.B. Swayze. Bob knows the state like the back of his hand. He has a sixth sense about what needs to be done. For that reason, he was able to call upon leaders in various communities to help us take on challenging issues.
I have the strength of being able to come in without many preconceived ideas.
Frankly, I don`t know much about Mississippi except what I`m learning from talking to people. I can go into communities and meet people with a new view and attract new people into the organization and leadership roles, and that`s healthy. Leadership has been great, but there`s always a need for constant rebirth. We`ll be able to build on the foundation Bob Pittman has laid. He really established the MEC in the way it is viewed today.
MBJ: What trends do you see in economic development in the state? Compared to other states in which you`ve worked?
BW: The thing that attracted me to this job is that, from an economic development point of view, Mississippi is about to explode. The key to our future is to make certain we are targeting rules, regulations and laws that will specifically enhance industries that have already made a commitment to the state. We have a terrific medical and telecommunications presence, and a hospitality industry that was much smaller 10 years ago.
Mississippi is one of the few remaining states with independent entrepreneurs still plugging away. We`ve got to make sure we do everything we can to keep the regulatory burden in check and make sure these folks can run their businesses effectively, provide good paying jobs for Mississippians and have a fair profit left over so their businesses can grow and prosper.
MBJ: What is the biggest challenge to attract businesses from out-of-state?
BW: We have to tell our story beyond our borders. We probably haven`t told it as well as we should. A positive story is the 850,000-square- foot Dollar General warehouse in Indianola that just opened. They made the announcement last July that they were going to locate their business there and within a year were up and running. In many states, you cannot even permit a business in that length of time. (Dollar General) is ready for more expansion if the business climate continues to be good. That`s a positive story to be told. Look at the tremendous growth that`s occurred in Tupelo with high-tech manufacturing plants, in Desoto County with distribution and light manufacturing plants, and on the Gulf Coast, where the true boom has occurred in the hospitality industry.
MBJ: Where do we want to be 10 years from now and what do we have to do to make sure we get there?
BW: It`s going to take a year and a half to get a good handle on answering that question. Maybe we need to focus on becoming the leading small business state, or the headquarters for three or four major types of industries. Perhaps we should focus on bringing in homogenous businesses.
Once we`ve completed our primary mission, to be a single voice and form a true partnership with Legislature, we`ll be at the top of the list.
I`m just the keeper of the coals.