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Regional meetings deemed fruitful

BluePrint Mississippi gaining momentum

Approximately 1,000 business and education leaders from across the state have pledged support of BluePrint Mississippi, the first broad-based, public-private initiative of its kind in the state.

University of Mississippi chancellor and BluePrint Mississippi project chairman Robert Khayat unveiled the plan last October. Designed to quantify and prioritize guidance relating to future development within the state, BluePrint Mississippi focuses on three key areas – business climate, economic development and education. Each area has a group assigned to take an issue, develop a plan and execute it.

“BluePrint Mississippi and the Education Working Group are pressing forward,” said group leader Aubrey Patterson, CEO of BancorpSouth. “Regional meetings have occurred across the state and the critically important input of Mississippi`s business community is being compiled. Coming up, BluePrint will hold meetings with small focus groups to deepen our understanding and prioritize issues before moving toward the final strategic plan.”

Business Climate Working Group meetings have been held in Jackson, Oxford and Hattiesburg, said group leader John M. McCullouch, president of BellSouth Mississippi.

“The results indicate that participants feel good about Mississippi, as a place to live and as a place to work,” he said. “They listed our willing workforce, our location, a positive quality of life and the friendliness of our people among our advantages.”

Regional meetings have been held in Cleveland, Gulfport, Jackson and Tupelo for the Economic Development Working Group, co-chaired by Anthony Topazi, president and CEO of Mississippi Power Company, and Entergy Mississippi CEO Carolyn Shanks.

Topazi, who recently replaced Michael Garrett, said he was impressed to see the business community come together and develop a plan that will move the state forward.

“We have been all over the state listening to business and community leaders tell us their views of where we are as a state and where we need to go to develop our economic potential,” he said. “While other states have done similar reviews, I’m not sure this detailed and inclusive approach is the norm anywhere I’ve been.”

BluePrint Mississippi leaders are “beginning now to pull things together,” said Topazi.

“I’m comfortable with where we are and feel our next steps will get us to our goal of having a comprehensive action plan for moving forward,” he said.

So far, the most pressing issues and concerns of business leaders across the state have been identified, said McCullouch.

“Persistent concerns expressed include the need for greater tort reform, improved infrastructure, and reduced governmental administrative costs, as well as access to affordable health care and improved workforce training,” he said. “There were general concerns about Mississippi`s image, not only as we are perceived by outsiders, but also as we perceive ourselves.”

“In addition to identifying the most pressing concerns, we’ve also heard strategies for correcting the problems. The key now is to distill what we’ve learned from the regional meetings, prioritize the top issues, and develop strategies to address those issues. We are in that phase of the initiative now.”

Dr. Alice M. Clark, vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs at the University of Mississippi, said the Education Working Group held only one meeting, assisted by the University of Mississippi and Jackson State University. The December meeting was well attended and revealed a great deal of information, she said.

“One of the fundamental tendencies of this process was to take advantage of what was already studied, and as you might imagine, the education arena has already been studied thoroughly,” she said. “So at this point right now, we have the recommendation from all of the other studies that have been conducted, and the input that came from that education-focus area.”

All of the state institutions of higher learning are enthusiastically involved in BluePrint Mississippi, said Clark.

Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) president Blake Wilson, one of the organizers of BluePrint Mississippi, said establishing a strategic plan is the next step.

“BluePrint is taking that kind of anecdotal thought about where we should be going, and we’re quantifying and qualifying what these leaders brought up at the meetings and supporting it with data,” he said. “For instance, everybody`s concern is ‘What about image?’ Well what about image? I mean, we all have our feelings about it. How do we quantify and qualify where we are vis a vis other states? Do other states have some serious image problems? Yeah. How do they overcome them? I don`t know; let`s find out. Let`s not look at this problem in just a vacuum, like ‘Oh, we’re Mississippi, we’ve got the image problem.’

“It`s so funny because I gave a speech in Kansas to economic developers and they all were very interested in Nissan. How did we get it? And I said, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got to overcome some of the challenges.’ And then I added, ‘Y’all have an image problem.’ And they all looked at me like ‘What`s this? Some wise guy coming in and telling us we’ve got an image problem?’ And I said, `that`s pretty bad coming from a Mississippi guy, because you’re assuming we’re going to carry this image problem around on our sleeve while you’ve got your own image problem. It`s made worse every single year when the networks re-run “The Wizard of Oz.” You’re the tornado capital of America.’ Then they all start immediately getting defensive because they obviously run into it all the time. Every state`s got a certain amount of image challenge. The question is, how serious is it? And how do you measure it and deal with it? Because otherwise, how do you ever approach it?”

Wilson said BluePrint organizers would look at each category and determine where improvements are needed.

“We can take the anecdotal thoughts, and then say, ‘OK, here`s what we’ve really found out: we’re behind here, we’re ahead there. What do we need to do to fix it?’ And with that input, which is what we’re gathering in phase two using existing studies, we`ll update the study results. We`ll get it into a form that really gets it down to a matrix, and then it becomes almost like a full menu of what we’re going to take on. That`s phase three, when priorities are set. We’re just beginning phase two. This project is so unique because, in addition to having an inside-out look on Mississippi, we’re also doing an outside-in look.”

The only surprise at the regional meetings was that “they were not quick,” said Wilson.

“The level of commitment of the very top leaders who participated was probably the most encouraging aspect in every part of the state,” he said. “We were asking people to commit three or four hours of their time, not counting drive time, but there was real involvement. It was not an off-the-top-of-your-head session where we threw out some ideas.”

The feedback received during the regional meetings closely aligned with results from a survey of business leaders conducted by Sara Freedman, dean of the Mississippi State University School of Business, said McCullouch.

“As to the amount of participation and involvement, we were extremely pleased, but not surprised,” he said. “We knew that the business community was eager for this type of initiative and effort. BluePrint Mississippi`s mission now is to help ensure that the short- and long-term recommendations made as a result of our meetings will have owners who will work to see the recommendations implemented.”

Even though BluePrint Mississippi was initiated before Republican Haley Barbour was elected governor last November, Rep. Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi) was named House Speaker and Leland Speed was named director of the Mississippi Development Authority, the state`s top elected officials support BluePrint Mississippi, said McCullouch.

Within the next 30 days, MEC plans to have an interactive Web site online featuring comprehensive data on BluePrint Mississippi. For additional information, contact MEC by calling (800) 748-7626 or visi
ng www.msmec.com.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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