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Much at stake as Mississippi moves into new era of economic development

Will efforts be marked by cooperation or competition?

JACKSON — With speculation surrounding the state’s new economic development plan, many business leaders have asked: what roles will the newly formed public/private partnerships, Mississippi Technologies, Inc. and Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development, and the Mississippi Economic Council, play in the mix?

“We all pretty much agree on the issues,” said Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development executive director J.C. Burns. “It’s the coming together of business leaders and the opening of lines of communication between all of the parties involved that will happen next.”

Since being named director of MDECD earlier this year, Burns traveled the state in a 13-city tour, attracting more than 1,300 business leaders from the public and private sector to talk about reorganizing the state’s economic development plan. Gov Ronnie Musgrove has talked about calling a special legislative session this summer to focus on economic development, competition from other states, and to move low-tech/low-wage jobs to high-tech/high-wage jobs.

(As this issue of the Mississippi Business Journal went to press, sources confirmed that the governor would reveal his plans for economic development and a special session during his speech at the Neshoba County Fair July 27. The MBJ will take an in-depth look at these issues and reactions from economic development professionals and the business community in the Aug. 7th issue.)

“One of the major things needed in economic development is flexibility with accountability,” said Burns. “I don’t care how we do it, but economic developers, such as MDECD, need to have the flexibility that is required to act and react in the world as it exists today. And it’s a very fast-paced world. It’s hard to get the necessary people together on a moment’s notice to make decisions. Whether it’s training or whatever, we need more flexibility than we’ve got. A lot of that will be based on the department’s ability to generate trust from various sectors — and we’ll do the best job we can. We’ll be honest and straightforward.”

Mississippi Power Company president and CEO Dwight Evans, chairman of MTI, co-chairman of MPED and chairman of Mississippi Economic Council, said economic development “is about making lots of pieces fit together. What is happening in our state is the outgrowth of renewed interest in and focus on our economic development effort.”

“In a perfect world, it might be possible to have a more defined way of going about these many tasks under one organization, which could include both public and private efforts,” said Evans. “But this is not a perfect world. What is happening now, though, is that we’re elevating the interest in statewide economic development at all levels — and it’s working. I think that’s a good thing and I don’t see any risk of the public sector being put in a position of competing with the private sector.”

MISSISSIPPI TECHNOLOGIES INC.

Last year, the Legislature created the nonprofit organization with a mission to create wealth through high-paying, quality jobs. Initially appropriating $1.5 million, another $1.5 million was authorized in this year’s legislative session.

Closely allied with the Institute for Technology Development, MTI is capitalizing on the state’s existing technology strengths in communications and information technology, advanced material science, transportation and biotech, to transform Mississippi into its own version of California’s Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle — perhaps the Magnolia State’s Maggie Valley? In attracting tech-savvy companies and professionals, Jackson faces stiff competition from nearby techie hot spots, such as Atlanta, Memphis, and Birmingham, and technology hubs such as Silicon Valley, Boston and beyond. But Jackson holds the ace, with mega telecom giant WorldCom headquartered in Clinton, employer of 77,000 worldwide and more than 3,000 locally. With WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers on MTI’s board of directors, it’s a card that will get a lot of play.

“MTI was developed out of the science and technology commission, which was alive between 1995 and 1998 and consisted of a fairly broad group of private/public sector folks, most of whom were not really top level management, with a plan to bring in state, private and federal dollars on a project-by-project basis,” said Clay Lewis, MDECD projects officer, earlier this year.

Patterned after organizations in other states that have successfully landed technology-based businesses, board members for the private/public organization include Burns, Ebbers, former Netscape CEO James Barksdale, former SkyTel chairman John Palmer, BellSouth Mississippi president J. Kelly Allgood, Lextron CEO Charles Doty, Mississippi Chemical CEO Charles O. Dunn, Friede Goldman Halter CEO J. L. Holloway, Peavey Electronics CEO Hartley Peavey, ChemFirst CEO J. Kelley Williams, the state’s public university presidents and others.

“If we don’t make technology front and center of our economic development strategy, we’re missing the boat,” Musgrove has said. Some business leaders say progress in the technology sector has been too slow. Five years ago, the state authorized $17.5 million in bonds to help build a telecommunications conference and training center in Jackson that has yet to be built.

The project has been slogging through a bureaucratic process marred by politics and legal uncertainty.

“It’s safe to say that MTI will be the umbrella under which the technology questions come up, and hopefully are answered, and that the problems that arise are resolved,” said Burns.

MISSISSIPPI PARTNERSHIP FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

When more than 500 statewide business leaders attended economic development forums last month to learn more about the results of Burn’s statewide tour and agenda for the upcoming legislative special session — many returned last week for a second round of forums — Burns emphasized that MDECD was working with the MPED on the joint project.

“The public-private partnership is the private sector group that would relate to, work with and help with development of the state in special situations as requested by DECD,” Burns said.

Earlier this year, Musgrove announced the establishment of MPED, a first of its kind coalition of Mississippi’s public and private sector leadership, co-chaired by himself and Evans. Since it was formed last year, MPED has attracted more than 70 allies and about $750,000, nearing Evans’ goal of at least 125 members and $1 million raised annually.

“Mississippi has a dedicated, professional staff of economic developers at MDECD and in local economic development organizations scattered throughout the state,” said Evans. “This hasn’t changed and won’t change due to the addition of other organizations and interest of the private sector. What is necessary, though, as we move forward, is to successfully align the newfound interests and resources with opportunities as they develop.”

With organizations working together, both the public and private side can bring something to the table, Evans said.

“Each organization has a mission, skill set, interest and support group which makes it a valuable piece of the economic development pie,” he said. “Some organizations are designed to enhance research and technology, while others focus on keeping current business interests moving forward. It is not an either/or situation — it is a case of everybody doing their part to make the pie bigger.”

MISSISSIPPI ECONOMIC COUNCIL

Two years ago, Blake A. Wi
lson took over as president of the Mississippi Economi
c Council, a post Bob Pittman held for 32 years in the state chamber that was formed in 1948. Wilson moved from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, where he was executive vice president. In that position, he developed a sophisticated grassroots member

About Lynne W. Jeter

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