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`He made an economic forecast fun`

Noted economist headlines CDF’s forecast conference

TUPELO — Continued growth in manufacturing, an increase in retail sales and the addition of service-related jobs in northeast Mississippi were highlights of the Community Development Foundation’s Economic Forecast Conference in Tupelo last week.

“Last year, there were 259 new business locations in Lee County, with a job increase of 1,863 in the service sector alone,” said Harry A. Martin, long-time president of CDF. “The industrial sector had 1,199 new jobs and the outlook is good. We have more expansions planned, and companies are looking to locate plants in the area.Even though we have the largest single hospital in the state, the health care industry is going to continue to expand. Home building is up, with 491 homes built in 1999 compared to 372 the year before. 2000 will be another good year.”

Before Dr. Barry Asmus, named by USA Today as one of the five most requested speakers in the country, made his appearance at the conference, where he was the keynote speaker to 800 attendees from a 16-county area, he gave eighth-graders from Tupelo Middle School and Saltillo High School a brief economics lesson.

Debbie Hall, executive director of Northeast Mississippi United Way, who attended the conference, was “very impressed” with Asmus, she said.

“He made an economic forecast fun, and that is something of an accomplishment in itself,” Hall said. “I was very interested in his take on the future, such as getting back to private enterprise, and that technology and information are commodities of the future. I am especially interested in his ideas about privatizing health insurance, Social Security and education.”

“As I’ve mulled over some of his ideas, I find myself very interested in them, especially medical savings accounts and school choice,” she said. “His idea that this would make health care and education professionals more accountable was interesting. We’re hearing a lot of this in the non-profit sector as well. People want results at the best possible price. In the non-profit sector, we are being asked for more outcome measurement. In other words, ‘be more accountable.’”

Asmus also talked about “freedom…the main spring of economic prosperity,” and how the U.S. is “more ready for the 21st century than any other country.” By 2020, he predicted the Dow Jones index of industrial stocks would reach 50,000.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove spoke briefly at the beginning of the conference so he could attend a meeting and reception in Jackson, hosted by the Mississippi Manufacturing Association, later that day. He enthusiastically talked about The Maddox Foundation’s goal of placing a computer in every classroom in DeSoto County, the plan to expand it statewide and the $100-million literacy gift recently bestowed by Mississippi native, Ole Miss alum and former Netscape CEO James Barksdale.

“We’re at a point where we need to be able to raise our competitive level against the states we need to compete against,” he said. “I want the jobs here. I want our children — just as you want your children — to be able to raise a family in Mississippi.”

A new agenda of workforce training and financial incentives to assist in economic development opportunities for the state will be unveiled in about six months, after he and J.C. Burns, new head of the Mississippi Department of Economic Development, tour the state, Musgrove said.

In retail sales, Tupelo surpassed Hattiesburg as the No. 3 producer in the state, Martin said.

“This past month, Tupelo came in third,” he said. “Jackson had $2.9 million, Gulfport had $1.32 million, Tupelo had $1.31 million and Hattiesburg had $1.27 million in retail sales. We have about 50 stores under construction now that are not even in this report. Those include everything from Old Navy and Circuit City to Cracker Barrel and Home Depot, which will really bring sales up.”

A Standard & Poor study showed Lee County with per capita retail sales at 284% of the national average and per capita income at 146% of the state average and 112% of the national average, said CDF chair Jeff Barber.

“We have a lot of work to keep the economic momentum of northeast Mississippi going,” he said.

Hall, who said that the United Way exceeded its goals before Christmas, added that she was glad to hear more jobs have been added in northeast Mississippi.

“I was especially pleased to know that we have added a large number of service-related jobs this year,” she said.

Martin said the annual conference is “not as big as Deposit Guaranty’s (now the AmSouth) annual symposium that has a statewide reach, but it’s a good conference and has been for 35 years.”

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

About Lynne W. Jeter

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