Several weeks ago I attended the first-annual Southwest Mississippi Economic Development Symposium in Natchez. Dr. Steve Wells, director of the MBA program
at Alcorn State University, invited me. Steve and I go back a long way to when he was a professor at Millsaps and I was a student. It was the summer of ‘69 and we
watched the first moon walk together on TV during a break in Steve’s intermediate accounting class. My how time flies when you’re having a good time.
I have a personal interest in Southwest Mississippi since both my parents grew up there. My father’s ancestors, Joneses and Nunnerys, were pioneers and helped
settle Amite and Franklin counties around 1800. My mother’s ancestors, the Douglasses and Chiles arrived at about the same time to help settle Copiah and
Lawrence counties. 200-year-old roots run deep.
Historically, Southwest Mississippi has not been at the forefront of economic development. The eleven counties comprising the region are rural in nature and suffer
some of the highest unemployment in our state. Overall, the economy is closely tied to the timber industry.
Natchez enjoys a slightly different deal. It benefits from a substantial tourism trade (gaming and ante bellum homes) and there is some manufacturing located there.
Natchez is also a regional center for the oil and gas industry.
Successful economic development today requires cooperation across city and county lines. In years gone by, cities and counties competed head-to-head with their
neighbors in trying to persuade prospective employers to locate in their area. Winning came at a tremendous tax cost to the successful community. Frequently the
prospect chose another location where a more cooperative atmosphere prevailed.
Economically successful Mississippi communities, like Hattiesburg, Tupelo/Lee County, and the Gulf Coast, have learned to work together and to celebrate successes
within the region as if it had happened in their local community. This is a basic, and vital, ingredient in the economic development pie.
A commitment to cooperation within the region was repeatedly discussed and encouraged at the Natchez meeting. It appears that Southwest Mississippi has learned a
good lesson from the more economically successful communities and is about to begin implementing some of those sound strategies to enhance their own region.
The new commitment to action and cooperation within the southwestern Mississippi region comes at an opportune time with the Advantage Mississippi Initiative
economic development plan recently being passed by the Legislature. That plan contains numerous provisions which encourage communities to partner to their mutual
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove spoke at the symposium luncheon. He pointed out that this area was one which was traditionally underserved by state government and that his
economic develop initiative would be a useful resource for “jump-starting” the process.
I was thrilled to experience the enthusiasm evident in Natchez. Strategic planning for economic development with the communities cooperating with each other is
exciting stuff. With no intent to rain on the parade, I would suggest that some consideration be given to the following issues:
1. Economic development is a long, long process. If success is not apparent immediately, there is a temptation to become discouraged. Don’t. Tupelo and Hattiesburg
have a 25-year head start in regional cooperation and emulating their success will take a long, long time. The end is worth the effort.
2. Mississippians are moving from the rural areas to the urban areas as agriculture mechanizes and rural, low-paying manufacturing jobs are lost to other countries. The
only way to keep people happy living in the rural areas is for them to have a good job and good public schools. If the public schools are not good, no amount of
economic developing is going to be successful.
3. Employers must have employees who are capable of doing the job at hand or they will not come to Mississippi. The workforce must either be already trained or
trainable. There must be an effective training program available in the area to provide customized training for the employers. Mississippians have a well-deserved
reputation for being industrious, however, many lack the skills to perform the high-tech, high-paying jobs which could mean so much to the southwestern Mississippi
economy. Workforce training plus utilization of the provisions of the new economic development initiative will do the trick.
Thought for the Moment
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of
outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
– 1 Thessalonians 4:11
Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is email@example.com.