JACKSON — With an economy that shows signs of plateauing, the Advantage Mississippi Initiative, as proposed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove last week, is purported to continue an eight-year streak of what was perhaps the state’s most impressive economic growth.
Capitalizing on teamwork and unity, the governor was optimistic the plan would receive legislative approval in an upcoming special session on Aug. 28. “I believe the legislature will pass and put on my desk the new plan,” he said, immediately following the press conference on Aug. 7, where he presented the state’s proposed new economic development map.
At the heart of the plan, six issues — education, transportation, incentives, leadership, state government accountability, and knowledge-based resources — have been identified by business leaders from across the state that, if appropriately addressed, would dramatically affect economic growth in the business community. Dwight Evans, co-chair of the Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development, the public-private partnership that co-sponsored community forums around the state and significantly contributed to the plan, was on vacation when the plan was unveiled and unavailable for comment.
“A lot of work and a tremendous number of hours have gone into the production of this report,” Musgrove said, in a letter co-written with Evans. “Is it comprehensive? Yes. Can we do everything overnight? Of course not. But…we have set out to create a living, breathing document that all of us can use as a blueprint of creating the Mississippi that is America’s State of Promise.”
The Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development would be renamed Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), provide an annual report card to legislators and would be revamped prior to the 2001 legislative session. A new position of chief technology officer would be created to coordinate technological resources with Mississippi Technology Inc., existing entities and the private sector. One or more specialists would be designated to provide assistance to employers to identify existing federal and state tax credits and incentives. A new division, established by a public-private task force, would be responsible for rural development “so smaller communities have a place at the economic development table,” Musgrove said.
“The Advantage Mississippi package dramatically changes the economic development landscape for Mississippi by preparing us for a knowledge-based, global economy, improving our competitive position and enhancing the public-private partnership focuses we’ve been working on,” said J.C. Burns, executive director of MDECD.
Community and junior colleges would take the role as the state’s workforce trainers, with broad authority for highly specialized technology training assistance given to MDA.
The Department of Human Services, MDA, the Mississippi Employment Securities Commission, the state’s community and junior colleges and other workforce training delivery systems would work together to address educational concerns and to coordinate the matching of federal dollars marked for education.
“I’m very pleased that the governor has identified community colleges as the training source for the state,” said Dr. Olon Ray, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges.
The state’s transportation program — air, rail, road, port and intermodal — will be reevaluated and prioritized, and an inclusive task force of state agency representatives and local officials and civic leaders would draft a long-term plan to update the state’s water and sewer systems.
“I was encouraged to see the governor list transportation as No. 2, but I was disappointed that there was very little detail about the situation we are currently in concerning highway funds,” said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall and chairman of the three-member state transportation board. “It’s a very serious situation. We’re talking about the possibility of a moratorium on construction for up to a year that would devastate the construction industry, and would set our building and maintenance program back tremendously. Even though the governor is reluctant to address it now, there’s a chance it will be on the special session agenda.”
The functions of the Long-Range Planning Office at the University Research Center would be streamlined, with a reorganization plan in place by the end of the month.
Relying on Mississippi’s universities to assist in the cluster approach strategy, specifically in biosciences, engineering, supercomputing and polymer science, is an integral part of the plan, Musgrove said.
“The universities have a huge role to play in the new economy, which is driven by information technology,” said Dr. Malcolm Portera, president of Mississippi State University. “I believe very strongly that the key to future development is directly tied to knowledge-based industries. Two of the technologies that will drive the future of the economy in this country are information technology and biosciences. In fact, I think this is the century of biology. But the computer and information technology will be an infrastructure item that will drive every sector of the economy.”
A Local Advantage Financing Authority would allow communities to expedite infrastructure projects for economic development projects. 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.
For the state that offered its first incentives in 1882, when legislators exempted newly-located businesses from various taxes for a decade, incentives are a prime component of the new plan.
Owners of small and minority-owned businesses will have support from the Capital Access Program, a program that creates a loss reserve fund to allow banks and other qualifying lenders to use their own underwriting standards for eligible loans without governmental approval. Because it is a separate state-run program, the Small Business Administration will not have a role, Musgrove said.
“I don’t know the specifics of the program, but I’m hoping that it doesn’t conflict with our Access to Capital Programs, because in some other cities across the country, there are Capital Access Programs that really serve as competition to some of the SBA loan programs,” said Janita Stewart, U.S. Small Business Administration district director. “Hopefully, what they have in place is something that will complement what we already have in place so we can work together on this deal.”
A task force consisting of representatives of the state’s development authority, the department of agriculture and commerce, cooperative extensions, state ports, waterways and other public and private agriculture boards commissions, will develop a plan for improving the state’s farming and agriculture interests.
The establishment of The Ace Fund, a “closing fund of monies,” will help seal the deal with prospects, Musgrove said.
Nine counties in Mississippi — four are in the Delta — have been designated as GAP Community Zones where, except for school taxes, new industry could move into these tax-free zones. To qualify, GAP counties must have unemployment at 200% or greater than the state’s average unemployment figures for the previous 12 months.
The Advantage Job Program will 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 other criteria.
Even though the proposal — and emphasis on economic development ̵
2; has been generally very well received, many
economic developers want to see more details before endorsing the plan.
“I don’t think you can be as specific in an economic development plan as maybe some pe
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