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Bad precedent? Doubts raised about Wellspring

Despite concerns from Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) chief Leland Speed and, according to a recent Mississippi Business Journal online survey, approximately three-fourths of business readers from across the state, the House passed legislation two days after the start of the 2006 regular session supporting the controversial Wellspring project economic development site in Northeast Mississippi.

Business leaders in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties — the PUL Alliance — trying to overcome the loss of furniture jobs in the region, are lobbying for $14.5 million in state funds to match $4.5 million in local funds to acquire roughly 1,700 acres in Union and Pontotoc counties and prepare the site in hopes of attracting an automaker to the area. The option to purchase the land, owned by 21 people, expires in November.

“I oppose using the challenges facing the furniture industry as an excuse to pit the economic development project of one part of the state against the projects of the rest of the state,” explained Barbour. “As a candidate for governor, I said I wouldn’t play favorites among the efforts by different part of the state to attract jobs. I said it, and I meant it.”

MDA policy decision

MDA deputy director Gray Swoope said the state agency’s opposition to the Wellspring project is a policy decision.

“We have a policy not to fund projects unless we have a committed prospect,” he said. “Even then, we would pass legislation contingent on closing the deal after we’ve done our due diligence with the company.”

Also, supporting the Wellspring project would send a message to prospects that the Northeast Mississippi site is “state-preferred,” said Swoope.

“Like it or not, if the state purchases the site, there’s an implied message that it’s the premiere site in Mississippi,” he said.

Wade Jones, president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, pointed out that communities and states don’t make decisions concerning where companies locate. “Companies make decisions on where they want to be,” he said. “Companies determine the characteristics of the site.”

Mike Randle, publisher of Southern Business & Development magazine, said the Wellspring site is still a question mark concerning the Kia project.

“It might be too late because Kia must make an announcement in March at the latest,” he said. “They’ve got to break ground by June. I just can’t see Tupelo getting what they need to get done and have all that on the table by March.”

Controversy over the Wellspring project has crossed party lines. In an unusual stance against Barbour, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck supports legislation funding the Northeast Mississippi site.

“Lt. Gov. Tuck’s position on Wellspring is obviously very popular in that part of the state, which is near her home territory,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “In the past few months, you can sense a little frustration on the lieutenant governor’s part in having to let someone else always call shots and she has decided to, particularly with her own electoral future being limited, make her own next move in behalf of Amy Tuck.

“A Democratic House member said that the cigarette tax bill passing the Senate so quickly early in the session is probably the biggest legislative coup so far. Amy Tuck is behind both of those and is demonstrating she is possessive of significant political leadership and can act independently from the governor. It’s shown that she still has some political firepower left in her.”

Senate President Pro Tem Travis Little (R-Corinth) and House Speaker Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi) also support the measure.

“The House members have not only a right, but also an obligation, to present ideas on economic development, and we shouldn’t have to wait for the governor to wave his magic wand,” McCoy said days before the session started. “We’ll consider everything the governor asks for, and most of it we’ve acted on positively, but we’re not limited to his propositions.”

At press time, House Bill 206, which authorizes the issuance of state general obligation funds for the Wellspring project, was sitting in the Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by Tommy Robertson (R-Moss Point).

Why the urgency?

Some economic developers have questioned the motivation for and urgency of funding the Wellspring project. “Whose contract calls for a bonus if a mega project is landed?,” asked one.

Robert Ingram, former executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore Industrial Board, said several economic developers around the state are definitely against it “mainly because they’ve built their own industrial parks and spent an awful lot of their own money doing what Tupelo is asking for help for.”

“I don’t blame the Northeast Mississippi folks for asking for it, but it would set a precedent that the state might regret setting,” he said. “If it’s funded, and if the state does it, I would love to see them do it so that other people could take advantage of the same kind of thing. You want everybody to be operating from the same set of rules, and not one person having a competitive advantage over another, and to my knowledge this is the first time on any kind of project like this where somebody’s asked the state to pay for something before they had a prospect.”

Last January, McCallum Sweeney Consulting of Greenville, S.C., an independent consulting firm commissioned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, certified the Wellspring site, located adjacent to Interstate 22 near the Blue Springs interchange, 10 miles west of Tupelo and 76 miles southeast of the Memphis International Airport.

“I commend the economic developers of those three counties for putting together a site to market,” said Swoope. “They’ve done a very good job. But the bottom line is, it’s a policy decision not to financially support it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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