Gov.-elect Haley Barbour has been mum about changes in leadership at the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), the state’s economic development arm.
“Other than the structure and process of the transition team, he has not talked in detail about any future plans,” said Barbour spokesman Quinton Dickerson.
But Barbour has been mulling plans for quite some time. Several times last year, Barbour met with economic developers around the state, including former MDA executive director Jimmy Heidel, to discuss economic development strategies for Mississippi.
“Mainly, Haley was looking for ideas and identifying the needs of the state,” said Heidel. “We discussed additional training for economic developers and state officials. We discussed extra incentives for targeted high-tech jobs, or jobs in excess of 20% above the state average, which we kind of already have with Advantage Mississippi, but maybe that needs to be looked at some more. There was talk of doubling some of the infrastructure development programs to help rural areas. We also talked about working with existing industry and recruiting. Then he formed his strategy and went forward.”
There has been widespread speculation and an assumption that Heidel, who served under Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice from 1992-1999 and who sits on Barbour’s transition team, will be named MDA chief when Barbour takes office in January.
“I hope the governor-elect appoints Jimmy Heidel as fast as possible to be the new MDA director,” said Michael Olivier, director of the Harrison County Development Commission. “Ninety-nine percent of the people I meet who are engaged in or support economic development want Jimmy Heidel. The governor can hit the ground running by sending the signal of having him appointed to this most important role. All across the state, most people will support that.”
Olivier, who also met with Barbour, said workforce training remained one of the state’s most critical economic development issues.
“We want to make sure workforce training is available and that we’re able to make the promises that need to be made to companies who are interested in expanding and investing in the state,” he said. “That applies to existing business and new business from the outside. Training is a critical issue in any decision to expand or locate a new investment. Currently, Mississippi is unable to make a commitment to companies for the long term that they will commit the dollars for training. We need a legislative cure for that.”
Olivier pointed out that workforce training encompasses all levels of education — K-12, community college, post graduate or vocational training.
“People took Mississippi to task for giving the amount of monetary support to Nissan that we did, but if you look at the total amount, the largest share was workforce training, which is an investment in our own people, not the company,” he said.
Mississippi lawmakers need to take a serious look at revising the archaic methods of determining inventory taxation, said Olivier.
“We have an inventory tax issue that none of our surrounding, competing states have,” he said. “All of them have eliminated the inventory tax. In our meeting with Haley, we talked about it in the context of many things that could put us at a disadvantage. We talked about a comparison of the Southeast and Southwest states with whom we compete, and an even broader geographic area. Today, all areas of the U.S. and North America and many other areas of the world are all more competitive than five years ago, in terms of attracting new investment. We need to be consistently on the cutting edge of knowledge about what kinds of business incentives and business laws are important to recruiting and keeping business and industry in our state.”
Infrastructure was a hotly discussed topic, said Olivier.
“Our highways have improved considerably in the last 20 years,” he said. “In that fashion, there are some areas in the state, the Coast in particular, that have not benefited as much as other areas, because the focus was to improve other areas of the state. The 1987 plan provided for that, because at that time the Coast was seen to have highway development since the interstate had just been put in. The ‘87 program was designed without much improvement here. That needs to be changed because of the growth and the fact that the Coast and Southeast Louisiana have such a particularly important role in our economy.”
Every program, incentive and business inducement needs to be reviewed, said Olivier.
“In some cases it’s not an incentive, it’s an attitude,” he said. “For example, it could be a policy or tort reform. We need to be looking at all the issues that effect business decisions, particularly ones that maintain investment in our state, that grow investment in the state, and to attract investment in our state. Mississippi can do things better. We’re looking for leadership from the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House and Senate to work together to move Mississippi forward. MDA’s role assisting the governor and lieutenant governor in attracting federal dollars, federal projects and major projects to our state is going to be a critical factor in making things happen in concert with our legislators.”
David Rumbarger, president of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, said he met with Barbour twice concerning the Lee County area.
“One meeting dealt with workforce development and the community college role in trying to bring out new skills and abilities for new technologies and industry,” he said. “The other was about foreign trade and how it’s affecting certainly the furniture industry but also all of the manufacturing sector.”
Rumbarger said the state should continue to focus on the automotive corridor because it’s the only manufacturing sector that has grown over the last three to five years.
“Obviously with the recruitment of Nissan — and in our area, three automobile suppliers have located in the last three years — we’re going to continue to urge the support of the manufacturing of component parts and vehicle assembly,” he said. “That will be important to our future. The other is to keep what we have. There is a heavy industrial base in Mississippi that’s in the fight for its life with China. That was the focus of a meeting Haley and Secretary of Commerce Don Evans hosted here a couple of months ago … about training, education and leveling the playing field, creating more foreign trade zones, and being competitive internationally with products and services Mississippi produces. Yes, recruiting the automotive sector is important, but also the existing manufacturing sector here is so important to the job base that there’s going to be a lot of discussion between the legislature and the executive branch to keep what we have.”
Former MDA chief J.C. Burns said he believes Barbour “will make MDA into more of a business- type organization.”
“We normally think of economic development as simply economic development, when the reality is that economic development is actually business and business issues,” he said. “Gov.-elect Barbour has a great ability to communicate. Coupling this ability with his experience in dealing with businessmen at the highest levels will give MDA a significant new asset.”
Because of a projected $700-million budget shortfall, a major challenge for MDA will be putting together winning development packages that are economically viable for the state, taking into consideration the timing of the state’s cash flow needs, said Burns.
Robert Ingram, executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation, said the recent p
shift should bring about positive changes for the state.
“I think we will see a professional economic developer running MDA,” he said. “I hope we will see more private sector involvement i