As 2005 draws to a close, Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) chief Leland Speed is looking back at “one helluva year.”
On Thanksgiving Eve, he took time to chat with the Mississippi Business Journal about the year’s highs and lows for the state’s economic development division.
Mississippi Business Journal: Tell us about the high points for MDA this year.
Leland Speed: Landing the SeverCorr steel plant. It’s the third-largest industrial development in the nation this year. It now takes us from the point where we are making the steel that goes into the automobile from one end of the spectrum to the finished project at Nissan on the other end, and it creates opportunities for us to fill in between.
Second was passing the Momentum Mississippi legislation. We needed an update on our entire incentive program and this provides it.
Then we had another interesting development with Bearing Point, a leading software company locating in Hattiesburg, and also the NASA Shared Services Center at Stennis.
MBJ: What about the disappointments?
LS: I guess Textron is the biggest one. We thought we had a nice manufacturing plant. They came in last year and are leaving this year. It’s a disappointment.
MBJ: Are there any programs or initiatives that you wanted to establish this year that came to fruition? If so, how are they going?
LS: We’ve reorganized MDA structurally because even though everybody had a job description and we could try to take on new things, if somebody didn’t get up every morning worried about just that, it didn’t happen. We divided the department into three divisions, and implemented our plan on September 1. Gray Swoope, Terry Hudson and Bill Crawford each head one. We put all the traditional activities in the first two categories, and the third one is called asset development, which is something new. The reorganization went into effect about the time we had Katrina, so it’s going to cause us a little delay in implementing all the things we want to.
Through the asset development division, we’re working on a variety of things, such as developing housing in downtowns.
If you develop housing in downtowns, the downtowns flourish. It’s the key to development, but the challenge is how to finance it. We’re working on that. Parenthetically, this is the second year in a row the Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA) has been selected the best in the nation. (MMSA executive director) Beverly Meng hasn’t been getting the credit she deserves.
Also, we’re recognizing the recreational value of our rural areas in the state. The market is speaking to us loud and clear, but we haven’t been listening very well. In his book “Boomtown USA,” Jack Schultz lays out a statistical case that the fastest-growing parts of America today are rural counties that get it.
Another asset we’ve identified in our state is our musical history. We think this has real economic potential. The first major step in that direction is launching the B.B. King Museum. It hasn’t gotten full funding yet, but it’s going to happen.
The Momentum Communities program is moving right along. We’re experimenting with Yazoo City and Philadelphia. And concerning the downtown housing initiatives, we had two seminars this year on bringing people together — public officials, planners and developers — to facilitate more downtown development. Those were very well received.
MBJ: To what specific initiatives are the resources and efforts of MDA being concentrated in the restoration efforts post-Hurricane Katrina?
LS: We have a six-point plan. The first point concerns communications, and that’s everybody, including local economic development organizations and chambers. They’re our local link to the community. Secondly, global business development. That involves literally contacting every leader of current projects foreign and domestic to let them know how we’re doing. Third, existing industry. We’re contacting all our existing employers with 100 employees or more, checking on their status and responding accordingly. Fourth, for small business, we’re providing one-stop resources to help small business owners through the Business Assistance Centers. We’re seeing a steady flow of prospects, but frankly, we’re not getting as many folks coming through as we anticipated. We think maybe one reason is that more people have been displaced than we recognized. But it’s working.
Fifth, for rebuilding the communities, we’re working to determine funding requirements to figure out how to quickly utilize multi-million dollar federal Community Block Development Grants (CBDG), which are administered through MDA. That ties into our long-term strategy, which comes in with the charrette held on the Coast. That was a howling success. I liked the broad participation, and how Jim Barksdale has sold the product. He’s had about 30 town meetings so everyone could be heard. If local people don’t support it, it’s simply a waste of time and money. And lastly, for tourism, we’re trying to get the casinos up and running as soon as possible and get the golf courses back in business. We’ll have three casinos open by New Year’s Eve and 87% of the golf courses will be open.
MBJ: Tell us about the volunteers in business behind the scenes in post-Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.
LS: That’s easy. Howard McMillan is running the state’s business loan program, where small business owners can borrow up to $25,000 for post-disaster relief efforts — and has a desk on the sixth floor of the Woolfolk Building, working for nothing. John Palmer and Jim Barksdale have given freely of themselves at no charge. Architect Dave Trigiani, who worked with me at Parkway for so many years, works a lot of the time for us for free. There are many more.
MBJ: What other programs and missions has MDA tackled to help with restoring the Mississippi Gulf Coast?
LS: We’ve helped direct a bunch of corporations who wanted to make charitable contributions to the Governor’s Hurricane Relief Fund, to fill in the cracks between some of the major national organizations’ efforts. A lot of our people were designated to serve MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) during the rescue phase of this whole process. Four or five of our employees lost their homes down there, and we’ve been working with them on that problem.
MBJ: What kind of strain has the effort been to the MDA budget?
LS: We’re doing fine. We have gotten some additional EDA (Economic Development Administration) funds. That’s about all we’ve gotten yet, but we anticipate expanded CBDGs coming down the pipe that will be focused on rebuilding infrastructures for all these towns and cities.
MBJ: How’s the morale of the MDA staff?
LS: Everybody has a vision of what we’re trying to accomplish and are literally working harder than ever.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.