Workforce development, economic incentives and political plays are at the forefront of issues that concern economic developers in the governor’s race.
“How will the candidates deal with our workforce needs to insure Mississippi is competitive with other states?” asked Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council.
Duane O’Neill, president of the Metro Jackson Chamber of Commerce and president of the Metro Economic Development Alliance, a tri-county economic development group, agreed that workforce development is a primary issue that needs to be addressed.
“It’s especially pertinent in the three-county area where we have low unemployment,” said O’Neill. “We need to make sure we have the workforce there, not only for the existing business community, but for potential or future growth of new companies coming in.”
Sonny McDonald, president of the Hinds County Chamber of Commerce, said ready access to the governor is vital to economic developers.
“Will the new governor be accessible or will we get the runaround?” McDonald asked. “I don’t go to the governor unless I need him, and if I need him I don’t want to get the runaround from the governor’s staff. It’s usually not the fault of the governor, but of the people in the governor’s office who insert themselves in hierarchy roles.”
When he is accessible, will the new governor listen? McDonald asked.
“We need a governor who will sit down and talk to people, someone who’s been in the trenches and can decide what needs to be done,” he said. “We don’t need someone to promise us motherhood, God and country. And apple pie. While many people say Mississippi has been fortunate in the last few years and that the state’s growth is behind us, I think our growth is ahead of us and that’s why it is so important to have someone available for easy access.”
Dr. Tim Hudson, dean of the College of International and Continuing Education and associate vice president for economic development at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, said he’s interested in what will happen to state leadership positions in economic development.
“I would like to know how the candidates plan to handle those very key positions,” Hudson said.
Steve Vassallo, CEO and president of Madison County Economic Development Authority, asked if candidates “would take the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development out of the political realm like the state of Kentucky did in the early 1990s.”
“It is one of the most visionary things a state can do,” Vassallo said. “In Kentucky, the economic development staff at the state level is not influenced via elections. Instead, a governor-appointed board serves a certain number of years and the economic development department answers to them. There will always be some political involvement but this minimizes it. If Mississippi did that, it would put our state on notice that politics and economic development don’t mix very well.”
How the candidates for governor handle economic incentives such as the Rural Economic Development (RED) program, which offers industries special incentives in rural areas, and the Major Impact Authority, which assists with industrial relocation of companies with an investment of $300 million or more, will be vital, said Tom Troxler, executive director of Rankin First Economic Development Authority.
“I’m interested in where they all stand on many good inducement packages that the state has offered recently to entice new industry to the state,” Troxler said. “Would the new governor continue these programs and try to enhance them?”
Venture capital programs took a punch with the Magnolia Venture debacle, but economic developers say it probably won’t affect votes.
“It’s too bad the Magnolia Venture went the way it did,” O’Neill said. “It was a great idea if it had been done right but I don’t think it will be a big issue.”
It certainly put a damper on the situation, said McDonald.
“I’m sure it’s going to have a negative effect on the state ever really getting into venture capital,” he said. “We didn’t need to be put in an embarrassing situation.”
Troxler said even though venture capital programs are loosely related to economic development, “I would like to see some sort of venture capital mechanism in the state to try to help people who have a good idea and need some sort of start-up help.”
“I don’t think we’ll see a change in economic development, but it did send a sign that we need to be real cautious,” Wilson said. “If we ever get going with another venture, we’ll learn from this situation. I don’t think the average voter is really focused on what happened. It’s something economic development professionals are more closely attuned to.”