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Economic developers, business leaders wonder: Who will replace Heidel?

Burning question

Top economic developers around the state agree on challenges – better incentive packages, workforce development and transportation – that the new executive director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, appointed by the state’s yet-to-be-determined governor, will face when Jimmy Heidel exits as executive director at the end of the month, but mum was the word on the list of possible candidates for the job.

“We’re leaving all of the speculation…to others,” said Buddy Bynum, MDECD director of public affairs.

Filling Heidel’s shoes is a different matter. In his tenure, Heidel developed working partnerships with state and local economic developers who compete for new projects on professional levels.

“Local economic developers seem to recognize that we’re all in it together, taking their lead from Jimmy at DECD and presenting a more positive picture of the whole state,” Bynum said.

Gray Swoope, president of the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg, said whoever takes over the job “will not have to deal with fence-mending.”

“Jimmy and his staff have done an excellent job of keeping in close communication with communities around the state,” Swoope said. “Whoever comes in will be very fortunate to take over a great department.”

Swoope said business and tax issues such as incentives geared more toward developing professional and technology jobs in the state, especially in the telecommunications industry, would “certainly be a challenge.”

“We’ve tried it in the last few years and have been unsuccessful in adding that sector to incentives of the state,” he said.

Mississippi’s greatest need is workforce development, Swoope said.

“We need to continue as a state and as a department, to make it a priority to train our people to have the skills to meet tomorrow’s jobs,” he said. “The person who replaces Jimmy will have a great role in that. People will be looking to that person to help set the tone of where we need to go as a state that provides training and technology so our people can earn a better living in the communities of the state in which they choose to live.”

Tom Troxler, executive director of Rankin First Economic Development Authority, said recruiting more telecommunications and e-commerce type businesses – and working actively to change tax laws for a level playing field in those industries – would be a primary focus for the state’s top economic developer.

Harry Martin of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo said two “soft spots” will need attention when the new executive director goes into office.

“Inventory taxes are only assessed in about 10 states, but Mississippi is one of the them,” Martin said. “All of the other states are doing away with inventory taxes. Mississippi has so much potential in the distribution market. Distribution jobs pay more, and we are in a great location with easy access to Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans and Mobile. We should do something about it.”

Addressing basic education and training needs should be a top priority, Martin said.

“Basic education and training are top criteria in the site selection process worldwide,” he said. “We must have both ongoing training and a plan to retrain the workforce every five years to keep up with technological advances. We have the structure in place but have not funded it and that will have to be addressed.”

In mid-December, the CDF will have results of a comprehensive 10-year analysis of northeast Mississippi by Deloitte & Touche, Martin said.

“The foundation has always used 10-year studies as a guideline to keep us competitive globally,” he said. “We must know how we compete. As far as I know, we’re the only economic development entity in the state to hire an outside source to evaluate our performance. Perhaps that’s a consideration for the state.”

Charleigh Ford, executive director of Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Association, said a good staff and good programs at MDECD are important, but “a real go-getter like Jimmy Heidel in the front office sets the pace for the whole department.”

“The new director needs to continue the momentum, especially in the area of competition from other states for mega-projects like Mercedes and Toyota that require attractive incentive packages,” Ford said. “We’ve got to be able to package competitive deal, and we can’t. A private group like Alabama has could help us be more competitive.”

Jim Flanagan, president of DeSoto County Economic Development Council, said emphasis should also be placed on continued infrastructure funding “because that’s critical to the success of industrial properties.”

“Jimmy called a meeting of a number of economic developers to come to Jackson this week to give us a briefing on the 2000 legislative agenda,” he said. “In the past, MDECD has had a very pro-active legislative agenda that has continued to keep us competitive.”

When asked about the list of candidates for the executive director’s job, all declined to speculate. None expressed interest in the job. “I’m happy in Hattiesburg,” Swoope said. Martin, with a hearty laugh, quipped, “I didn’t want the job here when I took it 50 years ago.”

When asked what Jimmy Heidel’s plans are after leaving his post as the state’s top economic developer in December – to head up a statewide private economic development group similar to one in Alabama? – department spokesperson Buddy Bynum declined comment.

Calls to campaign offices of gubernatorial candidates Ronnie Musgrove (D-Batesville) and Mike Parker (R-Brookhaven) for comments were not returned by deadline.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.

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