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As I See It

Hitting the road to Tunica for MEDC’s summer meeting

It’s hot in Tunica in July. Real hot! Nevertheless, I thought it was important to drive up there from Jackson July 19th to attend the Mississippi Economic Development Council’s annual summer conference, and so away I went up Interstate 55.

Since a number of you have suggested that I was really on vacation, I’m setting the record straight — I was working! For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Mississippi Economic Development Council, I thought that I’d offer my perspective on the organization and its members, and the roles they play in the larger Mississippi business community.

MEDC is made up of two groups with similar interests — chambers of commerce and economic development organizations. The MEDC provides courses for their members to take advantage of professional education opportunities and to network during two major gatherings every year. The lineup of speakers is always outstanding, and this years’ summer meeting was no exception.

In considering economic development, I think it’s safe to say that everyone wants people to like their communities and spend their dollars there. Though they are perhaps less direct than I, that is, nonetheless, what economic development is all about. More specifically, raising the average per capita income brings financial success to the entire state. The two main groups that comprise the MEDC membership tackle economic development differently.

Chamber folks tend to be more involved in the everyday, hands-on, one-on-one activities that boost local businesses. They promote their communities through festivals, ribbon-cuttings and networking activities. They welcome visitors. They encourage residents to shop locally. They support their members with a wide range of programs. They serve as advocates for important business issues in their communities. And obviously, there is a lot more to what chambers of commerce are doing but that’s the general idea, as I see it.

Economic development folks, on the other hand, take a bigger picture/longer term approach to the process. They are focused on enticing new businesses and industries to locate in their communities. The tools of the trade include industrial parks, infrastructure capacity and workforce training — all designed to attract more and better jobs to the area. It’s a laudable undertaking.

In bygone times, the bait to attract manufacturing jobs after the mechanization of farming filled the unemployment ranks was the lure of abundant, cheap labor. This strategy was very successful and Mississippi became an important cog in the manufacturing gear. In fact, until recently, Mississippi had the largest percentage of its population engaged in manufacturing of any state in the U.S.

The primary attraction of manufacturing jobs was that they paid more than lower-skilled service jobs. Thus, Mississippi became the mecca for cheap, low-skill manufacturing jobs until the arrival of globalization. Things have changed dramatically and will continue to change with lightening speed for the foreseeable future.

With that little history lesson as background, I found it interesting that Mississippi economic developers have discovered and are beginning to embrace regionalism as a strategy for success. Whereas, in the past, cities and counties competed against each other to land job-laden deals, now there is talk of cooperation and the benefits of somebody in the area getting the deal even if I didn’t. This is truly unusual here in a state not known for regional cooperation.

Thus, if Lincoln County is pursuing a target company who decides on a Copiah County location instead, there’s still cause for celebration in Lincoln County. People will live and buy within the region and both counties will benefit from the economic activity and tax dollars generated. Plus, a new business locating in the geographic region brings excitement and future possibilities for the entire region. Hey, this really makes sense!

Regional cooperation is certainly evident with Nissan in Madison County and the new SeverCorr mill in Lowndes County. Both industries have sprouted, and will continue to sprout, satellite supplier locations in neighboring counties, which could prove to be just as economically significant as the main plant itself. Neither of the industries was landed without a tremendous amount of effort from state, federal and local officials and a ton of cooperation throughout the region.
To be successful in the new economic order wrought by globalization, Mississippi, and all industrialized states and countries for that matter, are going to have to redefine their ideas about economic development. The bait of cheap, abundant labor will no longer give occasion for ribbon-cuttings. However, location, climate, favorable government environment and an abundant, trained workforce will carry the day for Mississippi and we need to leap upon this bandwagon as quickly as possible.

Can we make the turn? Of course we can. We have everything going for us now with the exception of a trained workforce, and that’s a problem that can be fixed. Here’s a short, incomplete list of what needs to be done to thrive in the new economic age wrought by globalization:

• Support state Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds’ initiatives for re-structuring our secondary schools.

• Applaud the efforts and successes of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security and the Legislature for diverting $20 million a year from the unemployment trust fund into workforce training dollars.

• Support your local community college — it is the primary deliverer of workforce training in your community and, as such, a key player on the field.

• Above all, encourage young people to stay in school. There’s no place for dropouts now and the situation will only worsen.

Thought for the Moment

Achieving goals by themselves will never make us happy in the long term; it’s who you become, as you overcome the obstacles necessary to achieve your goals, that can give you the deepest and most long-lasting sense of fulfillment.

— motivational speaker and
management consultant Anthony Robbins

Joe D. Jones, CPA (retired), is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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