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Successful visit to Washington takes planning, follow-up

When Jimmy Heidel, a nearly 40-year veteran of economic development and current consultant for the City of Jackson, was asked who had the biggest impact on his career, he named former U.S. congressmen and senators Jamie Whitten, David Bowen, John Stennis and James Eastland. He said he learned invaluable lessons from them, and counts trips to Washington as highly rewarding.

Successful economic development is a team effort, and important members of that team work in Washington. Staying in contact with the state’s congressional delegation is an important job of economic developers, and that often means making a trip to the National Capital to meet with lawmakers.

So, how do economic developers plan for a trip to D.C.? What’s the protocol? And, what experience have economic developers had when inside The Beltway?

Working the plan

Preparation is the key to a successful Washington trip. That is the message from Jim Flanagan, president of the DeSoto Economic Development Council, and Chad Wages, principal at the Ridgeland-based engineering firm Mendrop~Wages, LLC.

The two men led a panel discussion at the Winter Conference of the Mississippi Economic Development Council held last February called “Let’s go to Washington.” The gist of the discussion was how economic developers can get the “most bang for their buck” when in D.C., a topic Flanagan in particular knows well as he and other county and city leaders make the trip annually.

“First, you have to arrive in Washington with agreed-upon issues,” Flanagan said. “You have to have consensus support, so the team we take is composed of leaders from both the county and the various municipalities.”

Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, agrees. “If you go in there with 10 things to ask for, odds are you’re not going to get any,” he said. “You have to focus on a couple of things, then speak with a unified voice.”

Another key to success is informing lawmakers of the issues to be discussed well before the meeting. It is important to present lawmakers’ staff with a white paper that gives the agenda of issues. Flanagan said often communities will start fielding questions from staff members about the meeting before it even takes place, which greatly expedites the agenda and gives the meeting a better chance for success.

Advanced preparation does not end with the setting of the agenda. In fact, there are a number of other decisions to be made before leaving, and according to Stennett, this may be the biggest challenge.

“The logistics can be tricky,” Stennett said.

As example, Stennett said if his community had, say, a telecommunications issue, the team would first contact Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), who sits on the House of Representatives’ Telecommunications Committee. However, the contingent would also want to see other congressmen and senators. So, an appointment would be scheduled with Pickering, and then the rest of the itinerary would be built around that meeting.

Once the meetings are over, the work is not. Follow-up is critical to a successful Washington trip, Flanagan said.

“Follow-up may entail providing more information or answering additional questions after the meeting is over,” Flanagan said, “or it might just be a note of thanks for taking time to listen.” Flanagan added that rarely does a community receive a definitive answer from a lawmaker at the meeting. Some outcomes can take years. Thus, the need for effective follow-up is even more critical.

All of these meeting components are important, because the stakes are often high. A multi-million project can hinge on a successful Washington meeting. And, that’s not the only thing that is high.

“It can be very expensive,” Stennett said. A trip to D.C. can cost as much as $6,000 per person, and since carrying a team is crucial, the bill can quickly run into the tens of thousands of dollars, he added.

Stennett said he envied Flanagan’s frequent trips to Washington. He said frequent trips breed familiarity, and close, friendly relationships with lawmakers can be the difference in receiving a “yes” or “no.” However, most communities’ economic development budget simply won’t allow it.

With the proper preparation, the meetings themselves can be surprisingly brief and impersonal. The general format is a presentation of the issues by the community team, followed by questions and input from the congressman or senator.

There is a usual third component to these meetings — banter. Stennett said often meetings wrap up with lawmakers asking about things back home, easy conversation that is more pleasure than business. “You’re going to spend a few minutes pleading your case, and then, obviously, you want to give the congressman or senator time to say what they want,” Stennett said. “After that, you usually just talk. Sometimes it’s about issues back home. But, oftentimes it’s just friendly conversation. It’s very pleasant.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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