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Local economic developers advised to know market, think creatively, be flexible

Heidel: New officials must be ‘strong, pro-business leaders’

Jimmy Heidel is no stranger to Mississippi Business Journal readers. As executive director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, a position he has held since 1992, Heidel has been a frequent contributor to MBJ stories and has written a number of guest columns.

Last week, Heidel took time out from his busy schedule to discuss — via e-mail — the state of economic development in Mississippi. His answers might surprise you.

Mississippi Business Journal: Give our readers a quick analysis of the Mississippi economy. Strengths? Weaknesses?

Jimmy Heidel: There are a number of strengths —

• Transportation — highly efficient network of ground, sea and air transport;

• Pro-business attitude;

• Strategic location in the center of the area in the U.S. projected to grow the fastest through the first quarter of the new millennium.

Our weaknesses:

• Perception of Mississippi;

• Lack of sufficient economic tools in order to compete for large industrial development projects;

• Potential lack of leadership from the state level in the future.

MBJ: Look into the future. Where will Mississippi be in five years? Ten years?

JH: Mississippi’s progress in economic development is so heavily dependent on our political system that this is difficult to predict.

There is no question that the leadership and vision of Gov. Kirk Fordice over the last eight years have produced incredible results — good paying jobs and a higher quality of life. Mississippi’s rate of growth in new business starts led the country last year, as did the increase in disposable personal income per capita. But, progress is directly tied to our political leadership’s willingness to approve the necessary tools which help us compete in a very, very intense economic development climate.

I hope the Mississippi of the new millennium will have the programs in place to attract higher paying, higher-skilled technical jobs related to space commerce and high-tech business. But, it depends on the election this year of a new governor and lieutenant governor. If our elected leadership in these positions are strong, pro-business leaders, we will grow and prosper.

MBJ: What can the business community do to support existing small businesses in the state and help them attract new customers, develop new products, offer new services? How do you nurture economic growth at the “Main Street” level?

JH: Economic growth springs from partnerships. Private sector involvement in small businesses is essential in providing guidance to the Legislature to develop appropriate programs. Business and industry need a stronger voice in government.

Economic growth can only be nurtured at the local level by community leaders who recognize the value that each business brings to the overall process.

MBJ: What is Mississippi’s role in the global economy?

JH: Mississippi and the Southeastern region are just being discovered by global companies. The fact that this area will be the fastest growing area in the U.S. gives us an important role in the future. I see Mississippi’s emergence in the global economy, our deep water ports in Gulfport and Pascagoula and our strategic location in the center of the Americas as pivotal to the future.

MBJ: How can state and local government best work together with private business and industry in economic development?

JH: State and local government can provide the assistance we need to be competitive in attracting business and industry. Workforce development is certainly a prime example of an area in which both government and the private sectors have a direct interest. Cooperation on this issue is essential if Mississippi workers are to obtain the higher skills necessary for new jobs.

MBJ: How would you define the “Mississippi Miracle?”

JH: The term “Mississippi Miracle” is short-hand for the economic progress made over the last decade or so in improving the quality of life here. It describes how Mississippians have come together to promote this wonderful state and reflects our confidence that this state is the best place in the world to do business.

MBJ: If you weren’t the executive director of MDECD, what would you be doing?

JH: Working in a regional or economic development program. The satisfaction of helping others obtain a better quality of life has been my goal for all Mississippians.

MBJ: What advice can you give to economic developers at the local level — the folks in the trenches working to land a new distribution center, a new manufacturing facility, a new retail or residential development for their communities?

JH: Take advantage of MDECD’s Competitive Community Program as a way of developing a strategic plan that will guide future decision-making and get all local parties reading from the same page.

• Work with economic development allies as soon as possible to form a partnership to put the project together. Business and industry are usually on a fast track and need decisions immediately.

• Be flexible and willing to negotiate benefits of a project.

• Keep your leadership informed of each step.

• Know your infrastructure and how it can benefit a project (such as the cost of rail, highway and water transportation), retail sales trends and potential need for housing

• Know that the business of learning how to work together can be difficult and frustrating. Local economic development professionals, as agents of change on the front lines, are duty bound to forge relationships where, perhaps, none existed before; to build bridges among diverse interests not accustomed to working together; to stay connected with business trends; and be alert to opportunities.

• The most sound pieces of advice I can give to a local economic developer are to know your market, think creatively, be flexible and never give up.


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