PHILADELPHIA — On the dusty fairgrounds of the Neshoba County Fair, huddled on wooden benches around the historic Founder’s Square pavilion, many business leaders anticipated an update about the state’s new economic development plan when Gov. Ronnie Musgrove stood up to speak. Instead, at the week-long world famous fair, where more hand-shaking politicians have gathered than anywhere else in the state, the governor didn’t end months of speculation about the new strategy, and the noise in the cabins of economic developers mostly came from the buzz of pesky flies and the hum of air conditioning units.
“Most of what I heard from the governor was him wanting an apology from Jesse Jackson,” said an economic developer who insisted on anonymity. “Although that has its place, it seemed like he was stalling for time.”
Many economic developers have commented that so far, there’s been more talk than results. When asked to comment early one morning last week, one unidentified economic developer quipped, “I’m dry as a bone. Can’t get my brain in gear.” Yawn.
At the state’s hottest outdoor event, the governor did make one announcement: that there would be another announcement.
The governor`s office will present the new economic development plan and call a special session during a press conference Aug 7 at 3 p.m. in the old Supreme Court Chambers in the Capitol.
“We are excited to present Mississippi`s new economic development plan to the people of Mississippi,” said Musgrove. “This plan is comprehensive, it addresses the needs of the business and industry and it will show the people of our state, and our nation, that Mississippi is ‘America`s State of Promise.’”
PROGRESS SO FAR `REMARKABLE`
Blake Wilson, president of Mississippi Economic Council, said it’s tough to come up with a new economic development plan in less than a year.
“The governor has been in office barely longer than six months,” Wilson said. “When I worked in Delaware, it took two years to come up with a plan. I think the progress that has been made so far has been remarkable.”
NO PERFECT EXAMPLES
Robert Ingram, executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi, said there’s not a “textbook” example of how to develop a state economic development program.
“Different methods have been used in different states based on time and money restraints and the purpose of the plans,” he said. “Much of Mississippi’s current process appears to be geared toward developing ‘designer incentives.’ Some of Mississippi’s incentive programs are outdated and some have actually been weakened during the past four years. There are also important potential growth areas for the state, such as telecommunications/back office operations, where we basically have no incentives. Both MDECD and the Mississippi Economic Council have supported bills related to updating economic development incentives that have not been passed during the past few legislative sessions, so we are definitely several years behind.”
Even though everyone is not happy with the way the plan is being developed, the consensus in economic development circles is that changes need to occur, Ingram said.
“The biggest concern I have heard voiced is that the program will be slanted toward one area or constituency more than others,” he said. “There are always such concerns when a plan is being developed by a small group of people in a highly confidential manner. I have developed a strong respect for J.C. Burns and his staff, so personally, I feel that the plan will be good for all. If it is not, it will fail because Mississippi does not have the resources to succeed if we are fighting among ourselves. We must be united to succeed.”
POSITIVE RESULTS EXPECTED
Tim Coursey, executive director of the Simpson County Development Foundation, said the state’s new and developing approach to economic development has been relatively easy to understand and should produce positive results once adopted.
“Thinking comparatively by looking at what other states are doing and duplicating successful programs is what’s occurring,” Coursey said. “While all eyes are on this effort however, we should seize the moment to take it to the next several levels. Why stop here by simply doing things a little better each day, or each year, or every time a new administration comes into office? That’s ‘incrementalism’ and it doesn’t work well in the private sector anymore, nor will it work well with a Partnership for Economic Development or with Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development.”
The call to arms from business leaders should be to innovate rather than reinvent, Coursey said.
“Our approach to economic development thus far has always been to keep up with the competition, or reinvent,” he said. “My hope is that we’ve all realized it’s time to gain a competitive advantage, not to just keep up with what other states are doing. Business author Tom Peters states that ‘the only sustainable competitive advantage comes from out-innovating the competition and that wealth in this new regime flows directly from innovation, not optimization; that is, wealth is not gained by perfecting the known, but by imperfectly seizing the unknown.’ In other words, our new approach to economic development should not only involve duplicating great programs but it should also foster experimentation and innovation — lots of it. The Mississippi Partnership for E.D. is the ideal vehicle for such a ‘perpetual think tank’ approach when it becomes fully functional and if we make innovation a priority.”
EXCITEMENT, ENTHUSIAMS ENCOURAGING
In June, after the first round of community forums held in Jackson, Hattiesburg and Oxford, where business and government leaders listened to Buzz Canup of KPMG talk about results of a study contracted by the MDECD to analyze the state’s competitive characteristics, and participated in identifying and prioritizing key economic development issues, response was positive.
“I see this fantastic turnout and interest in economic development as a thirst for information and an enthusiasm for direction to provide a ready workforce for the state,” said Vicksburg Mayor Robert Major Walker.
Secretary of State Eric Clark said having state government and the private sector work together to move Mississippi’s economy ahead is “exactly what we need to do.”
Clinton Mayor Rosemary Aultman said the timing is ripe to look at new ways of attracting business.
“For us to be competitive in the Southeast, we’re going to have to rethink how we’re going to do business and look at what has been successful in other states and put together a good incentive package that is very attractive to these large, industrial clients, or even smaller clients that are looking to relocate,” she said. “We have so many good attributes that make us look attractive, but we’ve got to step outside what we’ve been doing. The economy’s good, the attitude about our state is changing and it’s a good time to be in Mississippi. Our people see the benefits of particularly high-tech industries. It makes an impact on the environment and community structure. It has a very positive impact on the quality of life here.”
CONSIDERING BOTH SIDES
At the second round of forums, held last month in the Delta, on the Gulf Coast and in Jackson, nitty gritty details emerged. There have been rumblings of eliminating the finished inventory tax, with the
question raised: where will cities and counties get revenue to
“It’s easy to say we need to offer incentives, but it has to be looked at from both sides,” said Wilson.
“Can the state afford a lot of incentives? What will it do to the tax base? There’s not an easy solution. We all agree incentives are needed. We just have