Note: This is the third part of a series of articles on long-range economic development planning for Mississippi. The first two parts of the series recounted the history of long-range planning in Mississippi, including a plan adopted in 1987 that required a 23-member board to meet regularly to update and implement the plan. The board hasn’t met in recent years, but now there are several new long-range planning efforts in the works. This article focuses on the challenges and opportunities represented by long-range planning, and what experts believe can be done to move the state forward economically.
What has happened to the state’s long-range economic development plan adopted in 1987? While some believe there have been some accomplishments from the long-range planning process, several major factors have made it difficult to translate the plans into progress for the state.
One, a declining economy has made it difficult to meet even short-term objectives.
Two, changing the way government operates is always difficult. Some proposed changes would shift the balance of power in different state agencies, so there has been resistance to change. But it isn’t just a matter of turf battles, but changing the focus of the 67 state agencies so they consider themselves part of a bigger plan rather than just accomplishing the specific mission of their agency.
Three, long-range planning in today’s world economy is extremely difficult.
Dr. Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute for Government at Mississippi State University, said people in Mississippi haven’t totally adapted to the new reality that Mississippi is just “a tiny decimal” in the world economy now.
“There was a time when what was happening in the world economy didn’t make a lot of difference,” Wiseman said. “If we could control things within our borders, we could somewhat affect what the economy did for us.”
Wiseman recalls 20 years ago talking to a soybean farmer who was withholding his soybeans from the market to affect the price. Today, such a tactic would have no impact on the market because soybeans grown everywhere else in the world affect the price of soybeans grown in Mississippi.
“We have to understand the national and world economy has a lot of say about how things are going to go in Mississippi, and has a lot to say about how we can affect our own destiny,” Wiseman said. “When the world’s jobs are going high tech, we can’t say, ‘We don’t have the kind of people to take high-tech jobs, so we’ll stay out.’ We have to figure out a way to get our boat in the river and row it anyway.”
He sees one of the biggest problems in Mississippi right now is being caught between the loss of low-skilled jobs due to NAFTA and other issues, and not having a skilled labor force to attract the high-tech jobs of the modern economy.
“We’re paying the price for years of low financing for education,” Wiseman said. “Improvements have been made in educational funding in recent years, but we are still behind. You have to think about the world economy and where it is going, and realize we have a whole lot of catching up to do. The economic shots are being called beyond our borders. Strategic decisions have to be made in that light. We have to realize the rules are rules that govern everybody. Whether we want to or not, Mississippi is going to have to be in the same game as everyone else. I don’t think we can use past experience to determine where we are going in the future as much as we want to.”
When long-range plans are announced, on the surface no one is opposed. But when it gets down to the details such as consolidations to prevent duplications of services, it can means agencies giving up power and money.
State Economist Phil Pepper says long-range planning requires a strongly collaborative effort.
“If you want to know why things are the way they are, just try to change them,” Pepper said. “The system as a whole is resistant to change. It has to come from the top down. It is a major undertaking to institute change. People have to expend a lot of energy to make things change in any state. And no one steps forward to implement the kind of changes it takes to put in place an overall strategic plan for the state. Individual agencies come up with their strategic plans. But to get the whole system to work together is a major undertaking.”
Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development District, was chairman of the state long-range planning task force during the Fordice Administration. Heidel questions the wisdom of spending more time and money now to develop additional long-range plans.
“Why would someone come in now and have two or three other plans when we have already spent a good deal of money to do a long-range plan, and evidently no one is following up?” Heidel asks.
Heidel thinks the state would get more for its efforts by revising the current plan.
“Basically when you do a long-range plan, that is what it is,” Heidel said. “It is a plan. You end up amending what you have from time to time to address the issues that develop along the way. That is what planning is all about. It isn’t concrete and never changing. The economy changes. Targeted industries change.”
Heidel said when he was director of the Department of Economic and Community Development (now the Mississippi Development Authority), no one could have projected the impact Nissan would have on this state. But instead of starting over with new long-range plans, he suggests adjusting and amending the current plan that is currently being pretty much ignored.
“The taxpayers of this state spent a lot of money on that plan,” Heidel said. “You should take what you have, and amend and adjust it with all the parties involved to give the state a direction for economic development because economic development is a long-term process. Economic development is a long-term process. It has always been a long-range process. The powers that be should sit down, take a look at the plan, remove the parts of it that are antiquated, and plug in what is needed for the future.”
Robert J. Rohrlack Jr., executive director of the MDA, said the agency’s strategy is to have not just plans, but plans in motion.
“That is the whole point of us doing the cluster industry analysis studies that were all completed by the end of last year,” Rohrlack said. “Now we are going into implementation of the steps needed to grow those industry clusters in Mississippi. It isn’t something that was mandated to be done. It is just the strategy we have gone by to lay out a multi-year program for economic development instead of going hop scotch from year to year.”
Rohrlack said it is critical that economic development programs in the state be supported adequately.
“If you look at the way the budget has gone for MDA since 2000, our budget has continued to step down each year in huge chunks,” Rohrlack said. “We need to stop the reductions if we are going to be serious about getting where we want to be going for economic development. The key thing for the multi-year plan is to support funding for the economic development program. The Legislature must continue to support economic development. If we are going to see successes, we need funding. A plan without funding isn’t worth much.”
MDA proposes legislation which will allow the agency more freedom to support economic development activities, particularly in rural areas. Rohrlack said currently certain rules prevent the agency from applying programs in rural communities. The proposed legislation for a Mississippi Rural Economic Development Agency would allow MDA to waive rules.
“It gives us
mendous freedom,” Rohrlack said. “It will allow us to guarantee a working capital loan for up to $1 million. It will also allow us to enhance the training programs w