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Barbour’s Asian trip finds favor in development circles

The Magnolia State’s chief executive officer is in Asia selling Mississippi, and economic development leaders around the state are in agreement. Gov. Haley Barbour’s 17-day trade and investment trip to Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan finds favor among those who hope he will be successful.

“I don’t know the cost of the trip, but that’s minor in going after business like this. You have to do it,” said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council. “It’s huge when a CEO goes out and does that, and the governor is the state’s recognized CEO. You can draw a lot of similarities with him and a corporate CEO.”

He recalls when former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee was the first governor to go out and put a face on economic development in the international market. The result was a Nissan plant that was one of the first Japanese automakers to locate in this country.

The Governor’s Office did not release the cost of the trip but said it is an investment in job creation for the state. Gov. Barbour is accompanied by six employees of the Mississippi Development Authority — four from the tourism division and two from the economic development division.

Wilson says the governor’s trip carries tremendous weight, especially with the new state products he has to sell.

“He has Momentum Mississippi and the reforms in workforce development so he can say ‘look at the new, improved Mississippi’,” he said. “We can’t wait for them to come to us. The governor is out there showing them the state’s new mousetrap.”

Neil Honan of Hazlehurst says it’s a good match for Gov. Barbour to meet with corporate CEOs in Asia. “It gives the state credibility. He has great passion and is a spokesman for the state,” he said. “Sometimes we have to get past the state’s image and he is able to do that.”

As executive director of the Copiah County Economic Development District, Honan feels the governor’s trip will help local developers be successful. He’s appreciative of his county’s partnership with MDA. A county of 30,000 residents, Copiah is centrally located to become part of the state’s automotive cluster and is actively recruiting segments of auto industry suppliers.

The executive director of the Community Development Association of Jefferson Davis County, Kathy Cloyd, hopes Barbour can land another Nissan so her county can benefit by acquiring a related supplier. She says the county of 13,800 people is economically deprived right now and eager to attract new jobs.

“The fact that we have a governor who is willing and able to make an economic development trip to Asia is indicative of the rise of Mississippi’s economic status throughout the country and the world,” she said. “I realize that MDA has a satellite office in Japan and I’m glad Gov. Barbour is utilizing it.”

David Rumbarger commends the governor for taking time to go see industrial leaders face to face. “I’ve always said our governors have to be more active and work twice as hard as those who are in the Southeast U.S./Japan Association,” he said. “When I came to Mississippi from Alabama in 1990, I thought the state was a member and was surprised that it is not. It has certainly been beneficial to Alabama.”

Rumbarger, who’s president of the Community Development Foundation of Tupelo, says Barbour can have open dialogue and build relationships on the trip that will pay off later. “He has a great chance because he has so many international contacts,” he said. “The governor does a good job and tells Mississippi’s story well. It’s hard to tell him no. I’m confident he’ll come back with some good prospects.”

Although State Sen. Billy Hewes III, of Gulfport doesn’t know the details of the trade mission, he feels this type of trip has typically been the thing that has created relationships that lead to new jobs for the state.

“The governor has contacts he can make and that makes a great deal of sense,” he said. “He can be an international ambassador for the country and the state. Any time you can make these contacts it pays off for the state in economic development.”

Scheduled to end August 17, the state’s trade delegation is holding a series of meetings and briefings with government and business officials in the four Asian countries. A visit with corporate officials of Nissan at the company’s headquarters was included. They also attended luncheons sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and Hong Kong and hosted an event at Mississippi Day in the United States Pavilion at the 2005 World Expo. The Expo event featured Mississippi blues artists James “Super Chicken” Johnson and Ora Reed.

“Now that Momentum Mississippi and comprehensive reforms in the state’s workforce development and training program are being implemented, we have an arsenal of new tools that we will use to help businesses expand or locate here,” Barbour said. “I will also emphasize to Asian-based companies already operating in the state our appreciation for the good jobs and good wages they offer for thousands of Mississippians.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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