JACKSON — In less than a year, CIT.ms, a newly organized independent trade group for the telecommunication and information technology industry, has become a driving force in a concerted effort to transform Mississippi into a high-tech cluster.
“CIT is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with,” said Dr. Angeline Dvorak, president of Mississippi Tech Alliance (MTA), formerly MTI. Prior to joining MTI in November 2000, Dvorak was president of Ashland Community College in Kentucky, where she was instrumental with the establishment of a community, workforce and economic development division, including The Entrepreneur Center.
“We have a lot of bright, talented people involved and to bring them together in an organization like this, we probably can’t even comprehend what could happen,” she said. “We already have a viable, very aggressive CIT organization moving forward.”
Last May, at Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting, Michael Porter, Ph.D., from Harvard University unveiled results of a feasibility study financed by local telecom leaders, showing that elements were already in place, with only a few missing pieces, to successfully build a telecom and information tech cluster in Mississippi. In the study, more than 300 telecom and information tech-related companies in the state were identified.
“Although Mississippi has a good foundation for such a cluster — in research, industry and public/private institutions — there are barriers to creating a CIT cluster that must be overcome, including education, attitude and a lack of focus on the part of public and private economic development agencies,” Porter said.
Because business leaders recognized that creating a cluster of telecom and information tech companies could help raise the salaries of Mississippians, attract additional jobs and improve the quality of life, several private and public associations immediately offered support, Dvorak said.
“Our vision and drive is for Mississippi to become a major competitor in economic development,” said J.C. Burns, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. “The Advantage Mississippi Initiative has provided us the tools to make dramatic changes in our economic strategy. This program brings us closer to that goal. The CIT sends a strong signal to business and industry that Mississippi is a great place to do business.”
Last June, the Mississippi Economic Council facilitated the organization of the first meeting of CIT.ms (CIT), with several prominent industry leaders in attendance. After the highly successful Governor’s Conference on High Tech last November, CIT’s enrollment swelled to more than 350 members.
“We wanted to make sure this wasn’t a group that just got together to talk,” said William M. “Billy” Mounger II, chairman of CIT and chairman of TeleCorp PSC, one of the top ten wireless providers in the nation. “We wanted to make a difference.”
Last month, more than 200 business leaders gathered at CIT’s bimonthly meeting, where members proposed steps to make a high-tech cluster of businesses in Mississippi a reality.
“It’s very significant to note that we have newly elected leaders — an impressive group of people who are taking the lead to drive the organization,” Dvorak said.
CIT’s leadership includes Mounger; Charles Doty of Lextron, vice chair of programs and events; Troy Stovall of Gulf South Capital, vice president of strategic planning and membership; Dennis Bracken of Bellsouth, secretary; and Robert Crawford of North American Datacom, treasurer.
“My job takes me throughout the U.S. and from that, I have found Mississippi has an excellent name in telecommunication,” said Cellular South president Hu Meena, who serves on CIT’s steering committee. “When I tell people I’m from Jackson, Miss., it catches their attention. They are familiar with the Jackson area, that it has become known as a telecom hub in the U.S. and that successful telecom companies are headquartered here. It’s already an asset to be in Jackson because of that reputation. Now, we need to take it one step further and leverage that position and continue to build the telecom industry in Jackson.”
Currently, about 37% of U.S. residents have wireless telephone service.
In the next four years, that is expected to reach 70% penetration.
“Mississippi is trending accordingly and it’s critical that we continue to develop the skilled workforce to support this market,” Meena said.
According to a December report by the Institutions for Higher Learning, the estimated annual impact of the telecom industry in central Mississippi is $401.7 million. That number is based on direct and indirect employment of 12,806 people.
“Jackson is home to several highly successful telecom companies and by joining forces, we will support each other through training, developing and recruiting a strong, talented base of information tech professionals that will move our companies forward,” said Meena. “At Cellular South, our vision is to provide the very best wireless service possible and this would be impossible without skilled and dedicated employees.”
Nearly 6,100 residents in the tri-county area, earning an average annual wage of $43,919, contribute to a $267.8 million payroll of employees directly employed by the telecom sector. Slightly more than 6,700 residents indirectly employed by the telecom industry account for a $133.9 million payroll. Because of related activity, $220.9 million in retail sales are generated and $2.5 million is paid in sales tax to cities in the tri-county region.
“It has a real multiplier effect,” said Mounger. “When people come into town to do business with us, they spend millions of dollars for goods and services. I’ll bet we’ve seen $5 million spent through the airlines alone recently, with suppliers flying in to work with us. The telecom and high tech industries already have made quite an impact in Mississippi, and with a focused effort, can make an even bigger one.”
Several initiatives are in the works, including the creation of a database that will profile companies by size, scope of work and other factors, which will, among other things, facilitate an employment base for the telecom and information tech industry.
“With our company’s expansion into cellular repair, hiring and training a qualified workforce is a major factor in our ability to service this dynamically growing industry,” said Bill Lee, executive vice president of finance and administration for NATCOM in Ridgeland, a CIT charter member.
Even though many telecom and high-tech companies in metro Jackson are growing, others, like WorldCom and SkyTel, have experienced layoffs. Earlier this month Vention, a Jackson-based company founded in 1995 by John Spivey to help companies get on the Internet, announced it would close.
“With our database and networking system, if a person loses a job on a Friday, he can hopefully find another one that requires the same skills on a Monday,” said Troy Stovall, president and CEO of GulfSouth Capital, a venture capital firm in Jackson.
Dvorak said it’s very important to know companies’ scope of work, because companies considered competitors have often discovered through networking that they are not in competition for business.
“In some cases, these companies have become each other’s customers,” Dvorak said. “And several companies are working together, going after big projects that alone they couldn’t tackle.”
In the case of Vention, whose demise has been largely attributed to the collapse of the dot.com economy, CIT members could offer assistance in numerous ways, including employee pla
nt and the possible creation of other spin-offs, Mounger said.
“Vention was a good idea, and they grew fast, but the dot.com and Internet world changed, and the demand for their services went down, making it difficult to rais