Mississippi has seen its share of economic development success stories in recent years. A number of high-profile projects have ended up here as the result of hard work and the unshakable commitment of business leaders in the private sector, as well as elected officials and professionals at every level of government — local, state and national.
That said, an argument can be made that in Gov.-elect Haley Barbour our state now has the best qualified chief executive at the helm of economic development efforts in its history.
The reason is simple and as basic to business as it gets: who he knows.
Haley Barbour has the credibility and connections — nationally and worldwide — to open the doors to executive suites that have been closed forever to Mississippi due to perceptions of our state. This ability to open doors comes from his contacts at the highest levels of government and business.
Consider the 60 members of the Reagan and Bush Sr. cabinets. They are now in the executive suites and boardrooms of the nation’s leading businesses.
Take, for example, a look at David Stockman, the former budget director for President Reagan. He is now the chairman of Collins and Aikman, one of the global leaders in the production of automotive interiors and plastic components. At this point his company needs to increase productivity and reduce costs. No other governor of any state would receive an equally warm reception from Mr. Stockman, and it’s all because of the credibility already in place between Gov.-elect Barbour and Mr. Stockman.
When this credibility is coupled with the automotive industry in Mississippi and the Southeast, along with the fact that the Mississippi Development Authority has targeted the automotive and plastics industries for special consideration, Mr. Stockman would be hard pressed to find a more suitable location for a new operation when they decide to expand. If the company and Mr. Stockman do not have a project on the drawing board, they will know that a creditable opportunity is available and attainable in Mississippi.
In economic development and government, credibility is the name of the game.
When we look at the chairs of every committee in the Untied States Senate and House of Representatives, every single one is on a first name basis with Gov.-elect Barbour. The fact that they have chairmanships is due in large part to the efforts of Barbour through his years of hard work for the Republican Party. This does not in and of itself assure success for efforts in Congress, but it does assure credibility and, as stated, credibility is the name of the game.
Of all the groups that have an ability to influence the direction of economic development in Mississippi, the business community of the nation is the largest. In this arena Haley Barbour will have no peers in the governor’s mansions of the country. His years of experience in working with and for them has established his credibility from New York to California.
On the homefront, Gov.-elect Barbour has the ability to work with the Legislature to provide positive leadership on issues critical to the state and essential to economic development.
One of the greatest challenges facing economic development in Mississippi is the potential for a $700-million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year.
Now more than ever it will be essential to look not just at the number of jobs created but also at the cost to taxpayers. Depending on one’s point of view, projects such as Nissan that change the total dynamics of economic development in the state can be cost-justified over the long term. Most other projects, however, must be able to produce sufficient revenue directly attributable to the project and not depend on indirect revenue to the state.
Unlike any other time in recent memory, the Barbour administration and the state economic development agency will face demanding challenges to put together financial packages which create good jobs and provide the cash flow necessary for the state. The task is not impossible, but it will be difficult and require a tremendous amount of credibility, hard work and fiscal management.
So far, it looks like those requirements are squarely in place as Mississippi moves into a new — and exciting — era of economic development.
J.C. Burns has been a banker, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority and now runs Burns Development Group from Ridgeland. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.