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Hopefully not much, industry experts say

WorldCom’s impact on Mississippi’s CIT cluster?

JACKSON — With the world’s eye cast on Mississippi, as millions follow the story of once mighty WorldCom, many business leaders have wondered: will WorldCom’s demise reverse the momentum being built for a strong CIT cluster or is it simply a black eye for Mississippi business?

“We believe the cluster will not be negatively impacted in any shape, form or fashion,” said Mississippi Techno-logy Alliance CEO Angeline “Angie” G. Dvorak, Ph.D. “The cluster’s really focused on a very diverse group of companies, from the small startups and two-guy shops to larger companies. Keep in mind the cluster also focuses on all those support businesses that feed into a cluster.

“While we all want the best to happen for the technology industry as a whole, and we would never want to see any company with a problem, all these challenges in corporate America solidify our conviction that a cluster approach has many positive aspects, including the networking and interpersonal relationships that are built between these companies and services.”

Dvorak confirmed that WorldCom has not been a direct participant of the CIT cluster being built in Mississippi.

“From what I understand, most of the company’s Mississippi staff is more administrative than technical,” she said.

Dvorak said she hasn’t received calls for assistance from local companies serving WorldCom.

“People usually call us if something is affecting them, but we have not heard from any of our CIT companies putting up a red light, saying this is going to be an issue or problem for them,” she said. “I’m not saying there’s none out there … none of them have surfaced.”

Gerard Gibert, CDP, president and CEO of Ridgeland-based Venture Technologies, said only a few Mississippi-based companies did business with WorldCom.

“We’ve been unsuccessful in even being listed as an approved vendor, which has always been disappointing since we’re based here and are a substantial company,” he said.

In February, Venture Technologies opened the state’s only commercially accessible tier one data center in the Jackson State University e-Center, providing Mississippi businesses and government with managed services for delivering information to end users.

“Their purchasing habits with Mississippi-based companies has been rather unusual,” said Gibert. “In fact, we compete with them in some areas.”

Even though Ridgeland-based Business Communications Inc. contracted with WorldCom, CEO Tony Bailey said the loss of that account wouldn’t affect his business.

“Getting them to pay was a challenge,” he said. “WorldCom still owes us money from two years ago. We actually use their Internet service and they will cut you off within an hour of you not paying your bill on time. But trying to get them to pay, well, I wish them on my best competition.”

No doubt, WorldCom’s headline-garnering woes have given Mississippi a black eye, said Gibert.

“What really disturbs me is that most people find it hard to believe that a high-profile technology corporation like WorldCom was founded and based here,” he said. “Now they’re really skeptical. It almost validates their original skepticism. In my view, it’s not indicative or reflective of the nature of the tech industry in the state. Unfortunately, it’s the best known so it carries a lot of weight.”

In the big picture, WorldCom’s stock plunge is wreaking havoc within the technology sector, Gibert said.

“Wall Street certainly is a leading example of that,” he said. “Beyond that, the market, which is already somewhat depressed, is going into even further skids because of this. It seems that every day, there’s more negative news about the overall economy in the tech business. It’s not good. We don’t like to see that either.”

It’s too soon to guesstimate the local impact, said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council.

“It’s important to keep in mind this is not just some holding company,” he said. “This is very much a company that consists of hard assets. Sidgmore had a very strong news conference (June 28) in which he talked about the value of the company’s assets and you’ve got to hope they’ll be able to work things out, recover and move forward.”

BellSouth also has a large presence in Mississippi, and Air2Lan and many other smaller companies have sprung up in this environment, Wilson said.

“We have to look broadly at the big picture,” he said. “The advantage is that we’ve got some hard assets, such as SkyTel and others and we’ve got to hope that a presence is maintained in Mississippi. That’s the question mark. Who knows? If I knew that answer, I’d be a swami looking into a crystal ball. It’s a matter of hanging in there and giving support to the new management team as it tries to move forward. That’s what we as Mississippians have to do.”

When Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was asked about the impact to the telecom industry, he sent a message by his spokesperson, Phil Kinney: “Our concern is for those workers who have lost their jobs as a result of WorldCom’s problems. The Mississippi Development Authority’s Rapid Response team was on the scene in Clinton on (June 28) to formulate plans to assist the workers.”

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

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