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Year of change

I have been executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) for just over one year. A colleague had to remind me of that. Quite frankly, I have been having the time of my life pursuing opportunities for Mississippi, and the passage of time just escaped me. While this has been an exciting year for me, it has also been a year of change at MDA.

The agency has been going step-by-step through the intricate tasks of assessing, planning and implementing changes in the way we approach economic and community development.

Like you, I often hear people say, “Why don’t THEY do this?” I have said myself, “THEY should have done that.” It has dawned on me that I am now one of the ‘THEY’ we speak of. So, if I am not part of changing things for the better, I will have to talk bad about myself.

I think the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. Charles Kettering said, “Everyone hates change, but it is the only thing that has brought about progress.”

I’ve discovered in my life that I didn’t learn very much when I was just standing still. Great things occur when we move ahead with great change. Or, as someone said, “Success doesn’t come to those who wait — and it doesn’t wait for anyone to come to it.”

The changes we are implementing at MDA will build lasting momentum in job creation and job retention. They will help us help communities and regions build momentum for themselves.

I recently read a quotation attributed to Conrad Hilton regarding his success in the hospitality industry. “Put the shower curtain in the tub,” he said. It was a brilliant, if obvious and simple, answer. In business, we often need to step back, consider realities that should have been obvious, and then make plans. Communities also need to step back, take a brutally honest look at their current realities, and then plan for the future.

Dealing with reality, facing tough issues and improving quality of life are critical steps communities must take if they hope to attract and keep good jobs. Unfortunately, the job incentive portion of “Momentum Mississippi” was rejected by the leadership of the House of Representatives several weeks ago. This presents us with even greater challenges of creating new opportunities to benefit our state’s economy. We are committed to move our state forward and improve our competitiveness.

Looking at reality, though, is not just about identifying special needs and challenges. Entrepreneurs do not build successes on weaknesses, they build on strengths. Every area of our state has unique assets, resources, and opportunities.

So, at MDA, we are shifting into a higher gear…one that helps communities come together and deal with tough quality of life issues, but also helps them identify assets and strengths and create new opportunities. This will result in a better quality of life, higher-paying jobs, and better educational opportunities for the people of Mississippi.

MDA cannot do this alone. We recognize the need to build partnerships, not only with communities, but also with other state agencies, federal agencies and other helpful organizations. MDA will be a champion for economic and community development. But, we will also be a willing partner.
Mississippi is primarily a collection of small, mostly rural communities. Today, that is good. One-third of the jobs created in America between 2001 and 2004 went to residents of 397 rural counties.

This news about rural America does not surprise Jack Schultz, CEO of Agracel. Schultz wrote in “Boomtown USA” that Americans are moving to small towns for quality of life. These are educated and entrepreneurial people, says Schultz.

Schultz says he is a realist on small towns. He estimates that only a minority, perhaps a third, of America’s small towns are on paths to success. He says that many small communities lack the imagination and the energy to change. I think we can do much better than that in Mississippi. In communities where citizens, business leaders and elected officials come together, face reality, develop market-driven visions and plans, and empower can-do, community-first leaders, anything is possible, literally.

In my opinion, right now, Mississippi is as close to getting its stars aligned as the real world allows. We have improving national and world economies; a governor who is committed to progress and probably knows more national CEOs and business leaders than anyone in the country; a powerful congressional delegation; and an environment and lifestyle dense urban areas would kill for.

Shame on us if we don’t take advantage and build momentum. MDA will give its all to make good things happen.

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