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Appropriateness questioned, but collaboration moves ahead

JACKSON — It’s an odd marriage, but an expected one.

Last month, the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic development arm, and the Mississippi Technology Alliance announced the two state entities had formed a new partnership to “focus on strengthening and advancing technology in the state through promoting and supporting industry clusters.”

“All we’ve done is formalize on paper what we’ve been doing on a regular basis,” said MTA interim director and CEO Andy Taggart. “MTA and MDA work hand in hand in many ways and certainly cluster development is one of them.”

MDA executive director Bob Rohrlack Jr. said the partnership “represents another step we have taken in proving to the world that we can and will compete globally for economic development.”

“This is important because it is a very visible and tangible demonstration of our commitment to excellence in the area of providing our citizens with the intellectual capital that it’s going to take to move forward in the 21st century,” he said.

MTA, a nonprofit group created by the Mississippi Legislature in 1998 to champion science and technology-based economic development for the state, was designed “to cultivate wealth through higher-paying jobs by enhancing the state’s research capacity and championing technology-based business development.” MTA’s mantra: “High tech means higher pay.”

Taggart said the memorandum of understanding between MDA and MTA was not because efforts were being duplicated.

“When (Harvard professor) Dr. Michael Porter visited Mississippi several years ago and issued his big study about how Mississippi, with a relatively small population and budget, can really move to the next level from a technology standpoint, he said the way to do it is to cluster around your areas of expertise,” said Taggart. “Immediately growing out of that, MTA and MDA began working together on it. There have never been differing views or stepping on one another’s toes. Everybody immediately agreed (Porter’s study is) exactly right and let’s get at it. MDA obviously has a much larger budget than we do, but our exclusive task is science and tech-based development. It’s a good match for our two sets of resources.”

In 2002, MTA received $1.4 million from the Legislature and also receives money from industry.

Taggart said MTA’s long-range plan is to eliminate the need for state funding.

“That’s exactly what was contemplated in the original action plan that was published in 1997 or 1998, which was for the state to seed the enterprise and for the funding to taper down on the public side and taper up on the private side,” he said. “In fact, we’re very aggressively working right now to build technology partnerships with key technology players all across the state. And we’ve been pleased by the responses we’ve gotten, but we aren’t at liberty just yet to make public announcements about those partnerships.”

Even though MTA was created nearly five years ago, the organization didn’t gel until Angeline “Angie” Godwin Dvorak, Ph.D., was hired in November 2000. (Dvorak left MTA last summer to take the job as vice president of research and economic development for the University of Southern Mississippi.)

“Although the entity had existed earlier, really only since the spring of 2001 has staffing ramped up at MTA,” said Taggart.

Since then, MTA has facilitated the development of a dozen local technology councils around the state, perhaps most notably the I.59MS Technology Corridor, and facilitated key partnerships with groups, such as SmartSynch and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, to bring jobs to the state, and created Pointe Innovation magazine, an 80-page quarterly glossy publication with a circulation of 30,000, which debuted last summer. Its premiere issue received the Southern Economic Development Council’s Excellence Award for Magazines and Advertising.

Despite its success, MTA has been criticized for, among other things, competing with private business. Last year, Dvorak said Pointe Innovation would be solely funded with advertising dollars from the private sector, based on 40 pages of advertising with a $3,500 base per page cost.

“We’re a non-profit, so we don’t have to have huge profit margins to satisfy shareholders,” she said last spring. “We calculated expenses to recover costs for each issue. At the end of the day, each issue forward will have recovered its costs.”

Taggart said the business model hasn’t changed. “Frankly, it’s amazing, and is a tribute to efforts the entire alliance has put into the magazine, because with any type of enterprise, you expect to operate in the red for a good little while, and in some cases for a couple of years,” he said. “But we’ve made up for the shortfall on the first issue on the second issue and we’re running just at the break-even point for our third and fourth issues.”

According to the partnership agreement, MTA will publish a recurring feature section promoting Mississippi’s industry clusters in Pointe Innovation magazine. The concept of a state-funded organization producing a magazine hasn’t been popular with private publishers in the

state.

“It’s inappropriate for the state to sell advertising that competes with private publications,” said newspaper publisher Wyatt Emmerich.

“It’s a strong-arm tactic. The state government has run out of money. The last thing they need to be doing is put out some frou-frou glossy color magazine that competes against private publications. It’s an unfair advantage. First of all, private companies have to pay taxes. Then, their taxes go to help compete against them. It’s not right.”

Even though news of the agreement was well received, many business leaders are still wondering why the announcement was made at all.

“I don’t think it makes much difference whether they have a formal agreement in writing,” said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council. “But it’s good. It can’t hurt anything.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.


About Lynne W. Jeter

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