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Questions arise over value of such programs, but information can be beneficial for communities

Texas-based firm offers analysis, ranking — for a price

Johnson & Associates, an Austin, Texas-based economic development consulting firm, has been circulating letters to Mississippi mayors offering to survey their communities, make evaluations and then announce the top 10 communities in a number of varying categories, based on their potential for economic development.

The catch? The service costs $1,500. Some economic developers around the state have told their mayors to “file 13” the letter, that is, simply throw it away. Opinions vary about the worth of a paid ranking, and strikes many as a waste of money since the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), economic development divisions of major utility companies, the state’s research universities and other entities provide similar services for free.

“My mayor did receive a letter from a Texas economic development consulting firm offering, for a fee, to analyze our community’s strengths, weaknesses and readiness for economic development growth,” said Robert Ingram, executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation. “I did not see the letter, but he read parts of it to me over the telephone. I believe the letter also stated that the consulting firm was going to publish a list of the communities in the state which are most prepared for growth.

“Because we have numerous entities in the state who are well qualified to do community assessments, there is obviously no need for Greenwood or other Mississippi communities to pay an outside consulting firm to do such work. I have no idea how the consulting firm plans to assess communities for its ranking but feel it must be using criteria other than choosing from those communities which hire them, or their ranking would have an obvious bias with no credibility. My guess, without actually seeing the letter, is that the ranking and the offer of evaluation services are entirely separate issues, which were simply discussed in the same letter.”

The letter, dated June 14, begins: “Dear Mayor: In August, Johnson & Associates…will begin an evaluation of Mississippi municipalities that have 5,000 or more residents. In October, we will release a report to the state and national media, and to participating communities of our findings. We will schedule a half-day visit in each community. The primary focus of the evaluation will be to determine which communities are the most appealing from an economic development perspective as well as from the highest quality of life. We will rank the top 10 municipalities in each of these population categories — 5,000 to 19,999, and 20,000 and above…For this ($1,500) fee, you will receive an external evaluation of how your city compares with other similar-size cities across the state.”

Steve Vassallo, an economic development specialist for Johnson & Associates, who runs the firm’s Oxford office, signed the letter, which closed with stating the deadline to sign up for “The Search for Mississippi’s Most Attractive Locations” competition is July 17 and requires a $500 deposit. The $1,000 balance will be due when the final report/evaluation is received on or before October 27.

“A lot of things in life are free…but we’re in a business for profit,” said Vassallo, when contacted about the letter. “We have a completely different perspective, and that’s why we’ve been in business for 18 years.”

The company Web site, www.jatoday.com, provides this introduction: “Johnson & Associates is experienced in every aspect of community economic development. Our principals and associates have led economic development efforts, state economic development programs, and business and industrial relocation projects. Over the past 25 years, Johnson & Associates has developed programs to meet the diverse needs of our diverse clients. Everyone wins when you achieve planned, positive growth by bringing in more jobs, more tax dollars, and more disposable income into your community.”

The Web site lists numerous projects, clients and endorsements from companies and economic development organizations located primarily in Texas and Georgia.

“To do what we’re doing for $1,500 a community is unheard of,” said Vassallo. “It’s a low price. Again, there are a lot of services that are free, and you have to place value on those, and compare them. We’re one of the longest (running) economic development firms in existence in the U.S. A lot of them aren’t anywhere close to 18 years. The reason we’ve been successful is we do very, very quality work. And that’s why we’ve been around so long.”

Vassallo said the company has found direct mail marketing to be its most effective way of communicating, and its quarterly newsletters has a circulation of more than 7,000.

“That’s our best advertising approach,” he said.

Joey Grisham, president and CEO of Marion County Development Partnership in Columbia, contracted with Johnson & Associates for a community assessment/strategic plan, which began last September and ended in January, and included a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. Vassallo led the study, which cost $27,000.

“We’ve already been able to see how it will be very helpful in our economic development recruitment,” said Grisham. “They gave us 24 recommendations they believed would help us immensely. We’ve already begun work on seven of those, including a Main Street revitalization project, which we’re about to start bidding next month, and a leadership program, which we’ll start next year. Another was to update the land-use plan for the city, and we’ll be able to hopefully start on that within the year.”

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

About Lynne W. Jeter

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