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Economic developers have plenty of questions

Delta leaders optimistic but cautious about Musgrove plan

AROUND THE DELTA — Even though Delta leaders were optimistic about the focus on the Mississippi Delta in the governor’s proposed economic development plan, most economic developers wanted to study specific proposals before endorsing it.

“I am very pleased with the focused attention that our governor and J.C. Burns, executive director of the state’s economic development arm, have placed on the counties that need assistance in economic planning and development,” said Cliff Brumfield, executive director of Greenwood-Leflore Industrial Board and Economic Development Foundation. “But in the Delta, we try not to react to plans until we have time to study them and consider all the possibilities. It is our understanding the plan is not complete and we have heard some broad ideas. Before passing judgment, I’d like to sit down with other economic developers in the Delta region to consider how these new ideas could be beneficial to us, then react together on it.”

Mark Manning, director of development for the Delta Council, said even though efforts aimed at the Delta are certainly appreciated, a full copy of the detailed plan would answer many questions.

“The efforts seem well thought out, and when we receive a full copy of the proposed legislation, we will analyze it thoroughly with an emphasis on its potential impact on the Delta,” said Manning.

Scott Luth, executive director of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, and previous economic developer in Panola County, declined comment until more information was accessible.

Ron Hudson, executive director of the Clarksdale Chamber of Commerce and Coahoma Industrial Foundation, said he was glad to see efforts made to target state programs to the Delta.

“That’s what we’ve been preaching and I’m glad they heard what we said,” Hudson said. “The Delta has unique problems that need to be addressed.”

In addressing priority issues, the Advantage Job Program would allow employers to receive a cash rebate of up to 5% of payroll if they pay employees at least 125% of the statewide average wage and meet other criteria.

Don Wilkinson, executive director of the Horn Lake Chamber of Commerce, questioned whether or not the new program would be retroactive.

“Home Depot probably is the highest paying employer in Horn Lake, capping cashiers at $10 or $10.50 an hour and loading dock personnel that go up to $17 or $17.50 an hour,” Wilkinson said. “Right now, there are more questions than answers. I’m sure economic development is a priority item, but what I’ve seen so far has been fairly broad.”

Of the nine counties considered GAP community zones created by the plan, four are located in the Delta. With the exception of school taxes, new industries could move into tax-free GAP community zones, counties with unemployment at 200% or greater than the state’s average unemployment figures for the previous 12 months.

“We will waive corporate income taxes, franchise and initial sales taxes for building equipment for new industries in GAP community zones,” said Musgrove.

Tax abatements, if not all tax incentives offered, already exist in the counties with great unemployment, Brumfield said.

“But many Delta counties, which don’t have the highest unemployment, have made tremendous local investments in economic development,” he said. “In Greenwood-Leflore County, millions of dollars have been spent developing an industrial park and upgrading the airport. We are now left facing a situation in our world economy that leaves it extremely difficult to compete with China, Mexico and others. In the Greenwood area, wages average $8 to $10 an hour with benefits, and these companies could go offshore or overseas and compete for less than a dollar a day. For us to be left holding the bag without incentives to counteract puts us at a tremendous disadvantage. I hope that somewhere in the new plan there will be a program that will help us turn the tide.”

The creation of a division in the state’s development authority would assist rural communities in economic development.

“MDECD has a Delta field office in Greenwood that has done an outstanding job,” Brumfield said. “We rely on their expertise and assistance on a weekly, if not daily, basis. If there is a continuation and enhancement of the practices already in place in the Delta, any increased focus would be welcome.”

The creation of the Capital Access Program, which establishes a loss reserve fund to allow banks and other qualifying lenders to use their own underwriting standards for eligible loans without granting governmental approval, would be potentially beneficial to the Delta.

“CAP would encourage and support entrepreneurship among small business and minority-owned businesses,” Musgrove said. “The creation of the broadband Internet accessibility to rural counties will also be significant to the Delta.”

The highly successful Certified Retirement Community Program would be extended to create community-based tourism development initiatives in the On-TARGET program assisted by the state’s development authority.

“The biggest economic development engine that our state sees today is tourism — inviting people from all over the country to visit the product that has been developed over the last 10 years,” said Webster Franklin, executive director of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I hope that any future economic development plans of the state will highlight Mississippi’s second largest industry — tourism.”

Even though the proposed Delta Regional Authority was not mentioned in the plan, Musgrove, who has already pledged support, said it would complement the state’s new plan.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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