Elected officials and developers representing all 82 counties and 290 municipalities in Mississippi gathered at the 2005 Governor’s Winter Symposium March 8 in Jackson to learn more about the “new” Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and its vision for moving communities forward.
Gov. Haley Barbour told the crowd of 350 that his team was hard at work developing new strategies to address the changing business climate across Mississippi and the nation.
“MDA is working with partners across the state to meet your needs in a streamlined and efficient way,” he said. “In order to grow Mississippi, we must maximize our resources and be innovative and aggressive in economically developing this state. Change is happening now. Improving Mississippi through economic development initiatives is our priority. Together, we can build new partnerships, and create more and better jobs that will positively impact Mississippi for years to come.”
MDA executive director Leland Speed said agency leaders “have been hard at work transforming our agency and our state into a powerhouse ready to serve you better.”
“We have certainly come a long way, but we have not reached the end of the road by a long shot,” he said. “There is still much to be done to insure a better quality of life and a strong business climate in Mississippi. This is a promising time in Mississippi’s economic history. New jobs are being created and opportunities are growing across the state. We want to improve the potential for Mississippi’s best and brightest to find good paying jobs and professional paths, so they can remain in the home state we all love.”
Mississippi is poised to benefit from the resurgence in small town living, explained keynote speaker David Dobson.
“Vibrant, livable communities attract and retain jobs and people, or, as the Southern Growth Policies Board says it, ‘quality of life is inseparable from economic development,’” he said. “Driven by this imperative, MDA has divided its program of work into two parts: Momentum Jobs, representing MDA’s mission to build ‘jobs’ momentum through aggressive and innovative job creation, job retention and marketing, and Momentum Communities, representing MDA’s mission to develop ‘quality of life’ momentum in Mississippi communities, which we’re focusing on today.”
Dobson is president of Chapel Hill, N.C.-based MDC Inc., a private nonprofit research organization dedicated to expanding economic opportunity, reducing poverty, and building inclusive communities in the South. The group is best known in Mississippi for authorizing the Millennium Group Report and facilitating the establishment of the workforce education and training system at Mississippi’s community colleges.
Citing Progressive Farmer’s proclamation that “moving to the country is once again the American Dream” that will bring inevitable change to the farm community, and “Boomtown USA” author Jack Shultz’ prediction that small and rural communities are poised to benefit from this new wave of migration, Dobson said “the rural quality of life is the driving force” of this trend, “coupled with good schools, good access to healthcare, lower costs of housing and living, lower crime rates and good access to jobs and lifestyle activities in urban areas.”
“Among those seeking rural America’s less stressful lifestyle are entrepreneurs, innovators, artists and others Richard Florida calls the ‘creative class,’” he said. “In ‘The Rise of the Creative Class,’ Florida says the choices these people make will help determine which communities will thrive or wither. Site selection experts confirm that successful economic development requires successful community development. They regularly ask for market information about education, environment, culture, recreation, social conditions, and other external quality of life aspects.”
Rankin was the only Mississippi county among Progressive Farmer’s 100 top rural counties. Oxford, Philadelphia and Picayune were the only Mississippi communities among “Boomtown USA’s” top 100 rural communities. Shultz predicted that only one out of three rural communities will achieve such success.
“We can do better,” said Speed. “But to do so MDA and communities, together, must think smarter and act more effectively.”
A multi-agency approach is required to have an impact, Dobson emphasized.
“Programs to improve community life have many names: sustainable growth, growth readiness, asset-based community development, etc.,” he said. “They all start with basic infrastructure — water, wastewater, utilities and transportation — and then extend to housing, schools, workforce, land-use, resources and more. MDA brings limited authority and resources to many of these categories. Other agencies have leadership responsibility.”
MDA has recruited 43 agencies to help communities assess strengths and resources, needs and weaknesses and opportunities for self-improvement.
To measure its Momentum Communities performance, MDA developed two indexes. The Momentum Index is a set of 20 quality of life indicators. The Boom Index is a set of three growth indicators. These indexes, when finalized after feedback from communities, will help MDA measure its performance as well as provide useful information to communities.
“Why two different indicators? Quality of life is a difficult thing to measure,” explained Dobson. “It includes intangibles such as ‘curb appeal,’ living conditions such as quality of housing, public safety and environmental quality, economic equity and vitality, culture and heritage and other facets that may change in the eye of the beholder. However, research shows that communities with a high quality of life exhibit certain traits for which quantitative indicators exist. Population growth ‘indicates’ a community is a good place to live. Income, employment and wage growth ‘indicate’ a community is a good place to work. Similar indicators exist for education, health, environment, safety and social well-being.”
According to MDA reports, Perry and Rankin counties have the most momentum, followed closely by DeSoto, Hancock, Jackson, Lafayette, Lawrence and Stone counties. The counties needing a boost are Claiborne, Clay, Humphreys and Sunflower. Interestingly, the counties on both ends of the spectrum are not concentrated in one geographic area, but are scattered throughout the state. The Mississippi average Momentum Index is 10.59; the average Boom Index is 1.56.
MDA has adopted five operating strategies to enhance Momentum Communities, including partnering with communities:
• To provide infrastructure crucial to jobs.
• To build sustainable basic water, wastewater and housing infrastructure.
• With a special emphasis on small and rural communities to develop self-help and action plans.
• To develop local and regional initiatives.
• To work with agencies and businesses to improve energy efficiency and energy infrastructure.
MDA has developed the following principles to facilitate Momentum Communities’ efforts:
• Get on board.
• Face facts.
• Empower leaders.
• Focus, plan and execute.
• Leverage resources.
• Be accountable.
Steven Martin, a spokesperson for MDA who observed the daylong meeting, said the crowd’s reaction “was one of appreciation … the dose of reality of how the way of doing business has changed at MDA.”
“Communities that embrace these guiding principles will find MDA anxious to embrace them and bring the full brunt of Momentum Communities and MDA programs to bear on their development,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.