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Economic developers readying for economic rebound

From the upcoming Nissan rollout on May 27 to streamlining in a tight budget year, Mississippi’s top economic development leaders are focusing on key issues while preparing for an upturn in the national and state economy.

“We’re not cooling our heels because the economy’s slow,” said Mississippi Development Authority Chief Bob Rohrlack. “If anything, we’re working harder than ever and positioning ourselves in the best spot so when the economy turns around, we can spring faster.”

Mississippi Development Authority

On April 16-17, state officials will travel to New York City to tout Nissan “Made In Mississippi” products at an international auto show.

“Nissan invited us to participate as they roll out new models and we’ll definitely be there,” he said. “Obviously it’s a great opportunity for the state to spread the word to the worldwide media that ‘yes, this is what can be done here.’”

On May 27, all eyes will be on Nissan when the automaker officially rolls out the first models from its $1.3 billion facility near Canton.

“That will be a very big day, with another opportunity to show what can be done in Mississippi,” said Rohrlack. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is expected to sign this week House Bill 1335, which creates the Mississippi Rural Impact Act (MRIA) and authorizes the issuance of bonds to fund loans and grants. “It’s a new, innovative program that will enable us to focus our existing programs more in rural markets,” he said. “We’ll be able to waive rules in existing programs that are preventing us from going into those markets. For example, if there’s a capital investment threshold or a jobs requirement threshold, which makes sense in a bigger market but is a big mark to surpass for a rural market, we can take out that requirement and apply our assistance to help that rural market succeed.”

MRIA will also enable MDA to supplement training programs and provide working capital loan guarantees, which haven’t been done before, said Rohrlack. “That’s a totally innovative program that’s going to help small community companies keep their doors open, succeed and hopefully hire more people,” he said.

Even though state lawmakers have pinched pennies to meet expenses, they’ve come “pretty close” to giving requested funds to MDA, said Rohrlack.

“We’d asked for $4 million in new dollars to do some innovative things even though it was a tough budget year,” he said. “We’re real close to continuation funding. It’s just a little bit under. We have a good story because we’re the agency that brings dollars back to state government, but it’s a real lean budget year so we’re going to stretch those dollars as best we can.”

Because tourism in Mississippi has increased since 9/11, boosted by Carnival’s recent decision to temporarily locate the Conquest, its newest and largest cruise ship, to Gulfport, MDA’s tourism division is busy keeping up with demand, said Rohrlack.

“They’re busy, running hard…to pump those interests,” he said.

Earlier this month, Fox TV anchor Shepard Smith asked field reporter Rick Levanthal if he planned to visit Tunica when the Iraqi war was over. Levanthal, traveling with the 1st Marine 3rd LAR, told Smith to “save a seat at the table for me.” Rohrlack replied, “You can’t get better coverage than that.”

Last month, MDA released a Stennis Space Center economic impact report that reflected an increase in fiscal year 2002. The report revealed that the direct global economic impact was $817 million while the impact on communities within a 50-mile radius of the NASA testing facility was $559 million. The center has 4,626 employees.

“We’re also seeing a steady stream of smaller projects cropping up and that’s a good sign of stability,” said Rohrlack. “Obviously, we want to see more projects continue to come in. We’re seeing that larger projects are taking a lot longer now than they used to. The time frame was getting shorter, but now decision-makers are stretching it out again. The national economy is definitely having an impact.”

MDA recently revised its Regional Service Division (RSD) to provide better delivery of programs and services to communities, businesses and economic developers across the state. The revised program includes 24 staff members, including division director Steve Hardin, at seven regional offices located in Greenwood, Meridian, Hattiesburg, Tupelo, Biloxi, Summit and Jackson.

“Used to, we had one person handling community service, another handling existing industry, another for financial resources,” said Rohrlack. “Now we have one division director in Jackson responsible for coordinating field office activity. Field managers are covering all the issues and we’re seeing a much stronger, coordinated effort.”

The decision to revise the field office system was the result of a study spearheaded by Ron Swager, Ph.D., in the Economic Development Department at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM).

“The staff, the communities and businesses were interviewed, and I met with local economic developers for their input and we came up with this plan,” said Rohrlack. “It’s been very well received and everybody’s pleased with us implementing a much faster response mechanism. All the divisions in Jackson will be utilizing field office staff much more than in the past, and that’s what we wanted.”

Mississippi Economic Council

On April 1, MEC president Blake Wilson was in Starkville, blowing a train whistle (“no April Fool’s joke,” he said) to call to order a town meeting for the Mississippi Express Tour, a series of 25 meetings slated through November. About 56 community leaders attended the luncheon, where upcoming projects, various issues and community concerns were discussed. The results will be given to incoming legislative leaders next January.

“They’re talking about highway-building progress, American Eurocopter coming to the Golden Triangle, and the Viking Range Engineering Center that’s getting built at MSU,” said Wilson. “The big challenge is obviously the national economy. With it struggling along, the key is to make sure we are positioned for the greatest effectiveness when the economy improves. And it’s part of the old game of hockey. You want to position yourself where the puck is going to be hit, not where it’s positioned at the moment. We have to keep our momentum going.”

The passage of tort reform legislation last year was a dramatic step forward, but more progress needs to be made, said Wilson.

“We’re not done yet,” he said. “We need to go to the next level. The Legislature did an outstanding job and sent a tremendous signal and set the stage for other states. Arkansas and West Virginia are in the process of dealing with tort reform. But we need to make more progress. Standing still is sliding backwards on an issue like that.”

It’s vital to continue making improvements to Mississippi’s workforce training program, said Wilson.

“It’s more than just providing direct workforce skills,” he said. “It’s also about providing a workforce that can read, write and do basic math. It’s both ends of the spectrum, and lifelong learning is such a part of workforce training that we’ve got to make sure we’re providing the tools for our community and junior colleges to continue to expand their roles in this regard and part of that is helping morph toward a new process of funding that will allow the community and junior co
lleg
es to take even greater advantage of their excellent position to promote lifelong learning. The challenge is that the way we fund the community and junior college system in Mississippi is based on full-time enrolled students, so a lot of the workforce dollars have to come from separate funds, private resources and other government grants. It’s really not a question of making a dramatic change. It’s a matter of helping over time the process to morph

About Lynne W. Jeter

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