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New Lamar County development group getting into swing

PURVIS — Lamar County business leaders are set to launch a new private economic development group they say is needed to better market the area and court business prospects and their jobs to the county.

But organizers of The Foundation are doing so amid raised eyebrows from some in the community who say the group will duplicate the services provided by the 10-year-old Area Development Partnership (ADP), which is also a private-sector, not-for-profit organization.

The Foundation is closely associated with the Lamar County Economic Development District (LCEDD). Blake Wallace, who is president of the LCEDD, also serves as president of The Foundation.

The Foundation made its debut last summer after the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce merged with the 1,000-member ADP. According to Wallace, The Foundation was formed to raise private dollars for business recruitment and to extend marketing capabilities. Private funds raised by The Foundation will not be subject to the restrictions of government money, and that will make courting prospects easier, said Foundation board chair Ron La Fon, who is district manager of Pearl River Valley Electric Power Association of Hattiesburg.

“You can’t even buy a prospect a cup of coffee,” said La Fon, who explained that many counties set up similar agencies for the same reason. “You can’t use government funds in some areas that you need them.”

But will The Foundation be competing with neighbor ADP, which is also a private-sector, not-for-profit group covering Forrest and Lamar counties?

“We’re pretty much the same, but our focus is on Lamar County,” said Wallace. “Naturally there’s competition for prospects who are looking at both counties…but we would work with the ADP if we had a prospect who would rather locate in Hattiesburg.”

When The Foundation made its debut, the organization admitted there would be some duplication of services of existing groups like the ADP, but that the duplication would be “minor.”

One example is the ADP’s retiree recruitment effort. Hattiesburg is one of just 20 Certified Retirement Cities in the state. Lamar County benefits from this program when retirees decide to settle there instead of Forrest County, but in the busy mix of businesses down U.S. 98, it is hard to tell where Forrest County ends and Lamar begins. With such a good program already underway, The Foundation’s role would be to add to the effort, perhaps by placing ads in national magazines targeted to retirees, said Wallace.

“If someone is doing a really good job, we don’t want to duplicate what they’re doing. We want to enhance what they’re doing,” Wallace said. “We want to be sure that dollars that our members are putting in don’t duplicate dollars already being spent.”

Gray Swoope, president of the ADP, had no comment on The Foundation, choosing instead to focus on the goals of his organization.

“The ADP has and always will focus on stimulating the economy of the entire region. In June of this year, the ADP will celebrate 10 years of existence, a decade of delivering results,” said Swoope. “Our organization, driven by private business leadership, will continue to implement our current five-year strategic plan and be accountable to our 1,000 member investors.”

A membership drive for The Foundation will kick off next month, and a fund-raising campaign is expected to follow sometime this year.

The Foundation’s program of work includes industry recruiting, existing industry support, retail recruitment, existing retail support, information services, workforce training and education, infrastructure development, facilities assistance programs, retirement, recreation and tourism, government relations, and public relations and marketing.

A main focus of The Foundation will be providing online information to members and the general public. The Foundation is now overhauling the existing Web site, www.lamarcounty.com and building a new site called www.hattiesburgmsa.com. Eventually, both sites will merge into the second site. The site will be available to the public, with certain pages open only to Foundation members.

The LCEDD is not hiring staff to run The Foundation at this time, but “if it goes as well as we hope, we may have to hire someone in the future,” said Wallace.

The Foundation’s membership drive was delayed because of the Christmas season and the local United Way campaign that was already underway, said Wallace. His goal is to sign up 250 members over the next year to year-and-a-half, and eventually sign up half of the area’s 800 to 900 businesses.

At press time, about 20 members had joined The Foundation. Membership dues are $150 for companies with 10 or less employees, and $250 for larger companies. Wallace said he expects some businesses will be members of both organizations.

“What they don’t want to see is that we’re trying to duplicate programs. We have to continue to work together and make sure businesses are getting a good bang for their buck.”

One business that is already a member of both groups is BellSouth, but regional manager Tim Ryan said his company is a member of many similar organizations in the area like the Covington County Chamber of Commerce and Marion County Chamber of Commerce, to name a few.

“When we as a company help the communities in the state grow, we’re a winner because we have the opportunity to sell our products and services to new people coming in,” said Ryan. “It’s exciting to be part of something new and innovative.”

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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