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Tool addresses rapidly changing needs

Synchronist enhances opportunities for existing businesses

While a lot of attention goes to major new industries who choose to locate in Mississippi, services to help retain existing industry and assist with expansions are also critical to the state’s economic development program. And now the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) has a new database system that is going to make it easier than ever before to track the needs of existing industry.

The Internet-based Synchronist Business Information System has been launched to partner with economic development groups across the state to gather information that will be used to help existing industries retain current employment and expand to create new jobs.

“The Synchronist System will allow MDA to better analyze community trends and provide services that will be most beneficial to the local community,” said Gov. Haley Barbour. “The retention and expansion of our existing businesses is an integral part of workforce development.”

Leland Speed, executive director of MDA, said the needs and challenges facing business and industry are changing rapidly.

“A program like Synchronist provides the state with the advanced tools to monitor an evolving business environment and maintain a competitive edge in our retention and recruitment efforts,” Speed said.

Synchronist uses an automated set of survey tools and 40 reports that issue marketing aids, warnings and alerts. Economic development officials use the system to survey local industries. Other partners in the Retention Expansion Network (REN) of Mississippi are the state’s three largest utilities: Entergy, Mississippi Power Company and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Jeff Dukes, MDA director of existing industry and business division, said Synchronist is a significant enhancement of the state’s existing industry program.

“We understand that existing industry is the primary supply of new jobs,” Dukes said. “Our mission in life is to try to help them. The Synchronist program allows us to collect information from our existing industries, compile that data and use it an analytical tool to understand the issues that are paramount to industries: what is working and not working. We believe it will help identify areas of strength as well as weaknesses.”

One example is discovering a need for a particular type of employment in a specific portion of the state.

“That is just identifying a pocket of need that may have not been recognized until it was collected in a defined format,” Dukes said. “An important part of total process is that we will be asking the industries all over the state the same questions. I don’t know that has ever been done.”

Several counties including Washington, Bolivar and Coahoma are well down the road implementing the program. Economic development leaders have been extremely pleased with the results — finding out existing industries are planning more expansions than was previously realized.
Since there are an estimated 3,100 manufacturers in the state, it will take some time to gather all of the information.

“We are going to work as quickly as we can to get a real sampling of what the issues are — not what we think issues are, but what we know the issues are,” Dukes said. “We are going to use this information from Synchronist visits as a foundation for us to call on corporate home offices. We want to go talk to decision makers at those headquarters and talk to them about the relationship we are trying to establish with their operations in Mississippi. We think that’s all part of strengthening our relationship with the existing industry.”

Ken Johnston, MDA manager of existing industry liaison, said most local economic development agencies have some form of existing industry program. They may survey industries to find specific needs. But before now there hasn’t been a way to collect information from all of the industries on a statewide basis.

“One advantage is we will all be speaking one common language,” Johnston said. “The local economic development groups are a big partner with us. We are totally dependent on them being involved. This is something that will be carried out with us holding hands with the local development authority. Most of the time, they will be with us on the visits.”

While the task at hand is a monumental undertaking, Johnston said they are very pleased with the progress.

“It is difficult for people not engaged in this type of work to understand logistical and programmatic challenges,” Johnston said. “It is a huge time commitment. It is something that has to be taken very seriously. We are committed to making this live up to its potential. Some of the ultimate benefits will be the relationship between existing industry and legislators. We will be able to say in a quantifiable, presentable format: This is what we are hearing from companies all over the state. We will ask the same questions in Biloxi as Holly Springs.”

Johnston said they have found plant mangers more than willing to discuss their businesses. The plant managers take a lot of pride in what they are doing, and are interested in strengthening their operations in Mississippi.

“Mississippi plants want to outdo their company’s plants in other states, and we want to help them do that,” Johnston said. “We want Mississippi operations to be the most profitable plant under the corporate umbrella. We think that helps home offices decide to expand in Mississippi rather than elsewhere. And there is a lot of activity going on out there right now.”

TVA has been encouraging its economic development partners to utilize Synchronist for job creation. TVA chairman Glenn McCullough Jr. said, “This software will help our local communities create more jobs for Mississippians by enabling our existing industries to grow and expand.”

Johnny Atherton, director of economic development for Mississippi Power, said the system has the potential to allow a public-private partnership to deal with issues before they become real problems, and find opportunities to be responsive to the needs of businesses investing in Mississippi communities.

Jay Moon, president of Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said its members are being encouraged to be active participants in the program.

For more information about Synchronist, contact MDA’s Existing Industry and Business Division at (601) 359-3593.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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