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Communities likely to suffer the most from budget cuts

Pinching pennies at the Mississippi Development Authority

JACKSON — Bob Rohrlack, who runs the state’s economic development agency, has a tough assignment.

After a whirlwind start on the job five months ago, Rohrlack has already juggled several challenges admirably. Now he has the unenviable task of splicing the budget while continuing to fulfill the agency’s mission: to reduce poverty and increase wealth by creating jobs for Mississippians.

“Unfortunately, budget cuts will be filtered directly to the communities,” he said.

At press time, the Mississippi Development Authority’s budget had not been determined, but it was evident early on that budget cuts were imminent. The pressing question was: how deep will they be?

“We’ve spent months in preparation looking at best-case and worst-case scenarios,” MDA spokesperson Sherry Vance said late last month. “Until it’s done, we won’t know which course of action to take. We’re hopeful that if there’s a reduction, it’s minimal.”

In FY2000, the agency’s budget was $30.2 million. This year, the proposed Legislative Budget Office recommendation for MDA’s budget was $18.9 million, representing a 37% budget cut over a three-year period for the staff of 307, and a 28% reduction from the previous fiscal year budget.

“Since our initial meetings in September with the LBO, our administration department started asking the various departments to review their programs and services and determine if 10%, 15%, 20%, 25%, ultimately 28% budget cuts were to take place, what would happen,” Vance said. “Once we determine what happens with our appropriations, the director will analyze the best structure for the agency so we can move forward. Whatever dollars we receive, we’ll certainly be frugal with those and will try to administer the most effective, efficient programs that we believe are in the best interest for the state and its citizens.”

Since its name change from the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (MDECD), as part of the Advantage Mississippi Initiative, the agency has undergone an identity promotional campaign, Vance said.

“Many people are still unclear about who we are and what we do,” she said. “MDA is the lead economic development agency for the state. That means we are the agency responsible for the creation of jobs and for serving both companies and communities. We serve companies, from existing businesses small and large to new industries looking to come into the state, through our energy division, minority business division, national and international recruitment and export trade divisions.”

Tourism, a $6-billion industry for Mississippi, would also be hard hit, Vance said.

“For example, the economic development tourism matching grant program, where communities can apply for matching grants to advertise and promote their activities, would definitely be affected,” she said. “We cannot continue to market, promote and staff all of these programs on fewer and fewer dollars.”

Through a network of regional offices, three bureaus — industry liaison, industry assistance and industry resources — comprise MDA’s existing industry and business division, which focuses on manufacturing and commercial needs and provides assistance to economic developers.

“We provide an enormous amount of support to other economic development agencies, such as the Mississippi Economic Council, and also regional groups,” Vance said. “If we’re not the first contact with industry, we’re certainly a part of it. We try to partner with our communities on whatever situation they’re facing to attract a new company or to save a company that’s having difficulty.”

Other existing industry services include the Mississippi Market Wholesale Show and a Cross-Match Program.

“Our existing industry program is enormous,” Vance said. “Through it, we administer the incubator program and entrepreneur tool kits. We handle the marketing of all those programs in-state, out-of-state and on a global basis.”

MDA’s Minority Business Enterprise Division (MBED) recently opened an office in Greenwood to provide counseling and training services to start-up and expanding businesses through business plan assistance, financial management and analysis, marketing assistance and financial resource assistance.

“I don’t know that any offices would close because of the budget cuts, but we’d have to seriously consider how we would service the many clients we have,” she said.

With fewer bucks, selling Mississippi to new and expanding businesses would be difficult, Vance said.

“Our ability to put the best foot forward to the rest of the world, to sell the sizzle, would be hampered,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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