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Most ready to move on to other issues state faces

Business leaders, developers offer mixed review of vote

When state lawmakers opted to pass the decision of choosing between a new state flag and the 1894 flag with a Confederate battle emblem to Mississippi residents, they cleverly sidestepped a sensitive political issue.

‘If the state Legislature did it, we never would have heard the end of it,’” Rep. Tom Cameron (I-Greenville) told Delta Democrat Times editor Donald V. Adderton. “I hope this will solve the problem, but I don’t think it will.”

Despite pressure from many politicians who supported the new flag, including Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Secretary of State Eric Clark, Insurance Commissioner George Dale, State Treasurer Marshall Bennett, Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell and Attorney General Mike Moore, and many business groups, including the Mississippi Economic Council, Mississippi Economic Development Council, MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, Mississippi Manufacturers Association, Mississippi Bankers Association and presidents of Mississippi’s eight state universities, Mississippi residents overwhelmingly voted for the old flag, making it the lone state still flying the bold “X” symbol.

For staunch supporters of the new flag, the day after the special referendum vote was a time for damage control.

“Our people have spoken,” said Musgrove. “It is important that we accept the majority vote and move forward with the business of bringing new jobs and better opportunities to all Mississippians. We now must put aside our differences as we continue to create a state that provides a good quality of life for our people.”

Congressman Ronnie Shows said it’s time to move on “and stand together on issues that we all can agree, issues that affect the pocketbooks of all Mississippians.”

“Let’s focus on issues like affordable medicine for our seniors, good education, and good paying jobs, supporting Mississippi forestry over subsidized Canadian lumber and keeping our promises to our military retirees,” Shows said. “We are the greatest state in the Union because our most precious resources are our people and our land. Let’s move forward.”

Now that the brouhaha is over, how will the flag vote outcome affect business and industry in the state?

J.C. Burns, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, said the state’s economic development arm will continue to move forward with its responsibility to create higher paying jobs, build upon the Advantage Mississippi Initiative, promote the state’s low costs and dependable energy, excellent transportation systems, its central location and other factors that affect a company’s decision-making process.

“We will continue to present the many positive aspects about Mississippi that our existing industries already know,” he said. “We also believe that visitors will continue to enjoy the hospitality that Mississippi’s people and attractions offer.”

MEC president Blake Wilson said the outcome was a setback.

“We’re obviously disappointed that Mississippians weren’t ready to take that large step, but we’ve celebrated taking so many positive small steps that we’ll keep moving in the right direction,” he said.

In retrospect, was it a mistake to allow the state’s image to be wrapped in the flag as opposed to selling Mississippi on its merits? Should the issue of the flag have been downplayed?

“We were put in this position because two other states (Georgia and South Carolina) chose to handle similar situations with great aplomb,” Wilson said. “We had no choice but to respond, and we’re going to suffer the consequences of not responding to the market forces.”

Will the focus on the flag affect recruiting new business and industry?

“I am not sure we will be able to ascertain exactly how much the ‘vote’ will affect our recruiting effort because a lot of decisions are made well before a prospective new business ever talks to us,” said Duane O’Neill, president of the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce.

“Nevertheless, our mission will be to focus on the many tremendous positives that are present in this great state at this time. We have a great state to promote and it takes every citizen to help spread the word.”

Robert Ingram, assistant to President Horace Fleming for economic development and executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi, said only time would tell if there are economic development repercussions.

“I was neither surprised by the large turnout or the margin of vote in favor of the current flag,” Ingram said. “Mississippians, in general, have never liked anyone trying to tell them what to do and a large majority of voters obviously viewed the issue as a state’s rights/heritage issue and not an economic development or even a racial one.

“Most economic developers to whom I have talked believe that this vote could bring increased scrutiny of Mississippi by the international media as well as by any companies or organizations which are susceptible to racial or human rights pressures. Unfortunately, in economic development, perception is everything and many people will probably ignore the great strides we have made in racial relations — including such things as our extremely high percentage of minority elected officials — and focus upon the most recent flag vote in forming perceptions about the state. I hope that the commonly held economic development view of possible negative economic and international perception consequences from the vote is incorrect because we must continue to create new and higher paying jobs for our children and future generations.”

Tim Coursey, executive director for the Simpson County Development Foundation, said there’s no way to adequately gauge what effect keeping the 1894 flag will have on recruiting efforts.

“I do know that the 1894 flag has never been an issue for any of our prospects in the past, not even remotely,” Coursey said. “But as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Many factors have changed recently in the world of recruiting in Mississippi, including the nature and nationality of our business prospects. And, the Nissan project sort of begs the question. Will we have more international clients in the next few years? Probably. So, will our state’s flag matter to these international interests? It might, now that the subject has been breached. It might not as well. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

In Washington County, where residents voted 52% to change the state banner, Adderton said the special election dramatically showed that “a well-informed electorate is not easily swayed by a campaign of misinformation — no matter how well financed.”

“The anti-flag crowd continues the relentless dirge of the Confederate battle symbol as being evil, an image that conjures the distaste of slavery and Jim Crow,” he said. “In reality, the so-called leadership and liberal special interest groups are simply fearful of forfeiting the power reins of their fiefdoms. The people have spoken loudly and overwhelmingly. Shouldn’t we be about the business of listening?”

Paul Philpot, executive director of the Perry County Economic Development District, said a positive aspect of the experience is the opportunity to create more and honest dialogue about Mississippians’ views of each other.

“What is important for economic development is not what our flag looks like, but whether we share a common vision, and if we are willing to work together to achieve that vision,” Philpot said. “We have plenty of things that we can let divide us, but if we decide that we are moving forward as a people united by a desire for
a be
tter Mississippi, then we can do anything we want to — whatever the banner we follow looks like.”

Because of its politically sensitive nature, some business groups, such as the Delta Council, took no position on the flag issue. Others said it was a minor concern.

“I don’t conside

About Lynne W. Jeter

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