Gulfport — Heavy Gulf Coast fog didn’t keep 1,400 people from attending Hancock Bank’s 39th annual economic symposium. The crowd gathered to hear economic and business development experts highlight the “Spectrum of Growth” that continues to nurture South Mississippi’s evolution as a regional powerhouse for economic vitality.
This year’s speakers were Dr. Edmond J. Seifried, professor of economics and business at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn.; Roger Dow, president and CEO of the Travel Industry Association of America and former senior vice president for global and field sales with Marriott International; and Hancock Bank president and CEO George A. Schloegel filling in for Mississippi Power Company president Anthony Topazi who was ill.
Seifried was making his third presentation to this symposium, noting he always has a positive experience here. He is a nationally recognized authority on economic issues and forecasting techniques.
He has traveled extensively in the former Soviet Bloc countries as an advisor and consultant to newly privatized commercial banks. He illustrated his belief that the U.S. is the best country to live in by showing a slide of the bathroom with his $300-per night hotel room from a recent trip to Russia. It was a picture of unkempt disarray with the toilet seat on the floor.
“I called the front desk to report the problem and said the toilet seat was on the floor,” he said, “and the desk clerk said ‘you have a toilet seat?’”
The economist, who has delivered more than 2,000 keynote presentations at conferences across the U.S. and abroad, listed four current areas of concern while making the point that “small problems can create big ones.”
• Housing bubble. As an example he cited interest only financing which includes no principal in monthly payments.
• Consumer debt. Household debt as a percentage of disposable income has risen from 50% in the 1960s to 110% today.
• Budget and trade deficits.
• Loan growth exceeding deposit growth in financial institutions.
Still, he remains optimistic about the American economy.
“In one day, we outproduce 20% of the world’s economy,” he said. “The national growth rate is 8.5%, which is safe to live with, but I view your area as different from the nation. The growth rate may be higher.”
Seifried worries about long-term effects of higher oil prices. “We have a looming energy crises that we must address now,” he said. “The average man, woman and child in the U.S. consumes 36 barrels of oil each year. The average for each person in China is just one barrel each year.”
China is an emerging country in the world market and has a population four times greater than that of the U.S. “We will have to share the resources,” he stated.
Asked who he thinks will replace Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Seifried said, “There is the notion that Greenspan is not necessary in some quarters and there is a debate that we should adopt the policy that Great Britain and Canada have when he departs. If you think picking a federal judge is hard, just wait till we have to replace Greenspan.”
The professor says he is always bullish on the American stock market. He believes it is strong and still a magnet for people.
Schloegel spoke on the momentum of opportunity for growing the state. “Momentum Mississippi is the most ambitious plan we’ve attempted in my lifetime to get Mississippi off the bottom,” he said. “Some think the problems of Mississippi don’t affect the Coast, but a problem in any of the 82 counties affects the Gulf Coast.”
Using charts to illustrate, he pointed out that low-income levels and wealth are spread throughout the state. If all counties had Harrison County’s average income per capita, the state would still rank 40th in the nation for income.
“We have a problem with agriculture. It’s the largest industry in the state, but we’re not adding value to the products we’re producing,” he said. “We don’t have to be afraid of agriculture. It can get us off the bottom.”
Except for catfish, Mississippi does not process agricultural products, sending out products at the lowest possible level, such as raw cotton and unfinished lumber.
Momentum Mississippi is working to get industry incentive legislation passed. “This would help us compete for new opportunities, improve our overall competitiveness and provide for existing industries to invest in productivity,” Schloegel said. “But it would be fiscally sound with adequate accountability controls.”
Schloegel, who has been with Hancock Bank 40 years, said Mississippi is lagging behind other Southern states and the U.S. in the number of college graduates. The state’s three largest universities have the same number of students as state prison inmates. The prison population is 10 times what it was 10 years ago.
“It costs much more to keep someone in prison than to send a student to college,” he said. “Among the prison population, 87% have a fourth-grade level of reading and math.”
Dow, who led Marriott International’s 10,000-person worldwide sales force, spoke on growing a business by investing in people. He began by showing a clip from the “I Love Lucy” television series of Lucy and pal Ethel working feverishly in the chocolate factory.
“How many of you feel like that every day?” he asked. “The whole world is speeding up and we can not allow ourselves to become obsolete. We have to operate business the way people live and now we’re doing business with the world.”
With his background in the hospitality industry, Dow says we now have an opportunity to re-invent the hospitality world by being bold, brave and courageous. He says America in these post-9/11 days is building a wall and becoming a fortress that hurts us around the world.
“We need to rally the country around travel to get people back here and make the country loved,” he said. “I’m concerned that our government is building Fortress America and our image outside the U.S. is bad. The only way I can think to turn it around is to bring more people here by making travel easy. That’s my dream.”
After 34 years with Marriott Hotels where he started as a lifeguard, Dow now heads a national travel organization made up of 27 associations. He said the way to take Mississippi from where it is to where it should be is to reclaim Southern hospitality.
“That’s what separates you. It’s in your DNA,” he said.
Since the mid-1960s, the Hancock Bank Gulf Coast Economic Symposium has served as a forum for some of South Mississippi’s most influential business and civic leaders to garner exclusive, first-hand insights into conditions, initiatives and partnerships shaping Gulf Coast growth and local, state and national economies.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.