Gray Swoope spent the waning days of September trying to convince state lawmakers to give the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) $26 million for fiscal year 2008 — $3 million more than FY07, but $3 million less than FY01.
“The strategy from day one with the leadership of Leland Speed has been to focus on how to do our core mission in the most efficient and prudent manner there is,” said Swoope, deputy director and chief operating officer of MDA. “The first year here, we had a 5% cut and then it’s been level funding since. This year for our general fund we’re asking for level funding. What we’ve been able to do is a head count reduction through attrition, without laying people off or asking anyone to leave, to reorganize the agency from 315 positions to 265. Through efficiencies, we’ve been able to figure out how to do a better job with the people we have. That’s how we’ve been able to ask for level funding.”
In addition to $23 million level funding for operations, the agency asked for $2 million for image recovery ($1 million each for economic development and tourism), $750,000 for a statutory disparity study and $259,000 for salary reclassifications and educational benchmarks.
“Image recovery, that’s pure advertising,” said Swoope, pointing to a “Thanks, Y’all” advertisement targeted for The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post and Mississippi newspapers. “There’s not a better time to let people know that Mississippi is in business and can still work on deals and entice tourists to come back to the state.”
By state statute, MDA is required to perform an annual disparity study, “but it’s never been funded,” explained Swoope.
MDA funding levels for the last seven years:
• $29.2 million for FY01
• $25.9 million for FY02
• $25.3 million for FY03
• $25.7 million for FY04
• $23.6 million for FY05
• $22.5 million for FY06
• $23 million for FY07
“For the most part, our presentation was well received,” said Swoope, whose agency administers a broad range of programs from Community Block Development Grants to HOME Loans. “We showed a map with dots representing each of the 721 grants or loans made in the state over the past fiscal year totaling $137 million. We wanted to remind lawmakers that each dot doesn’t just represent money to a county, but it’s where MDA has touched the life of a Mississippian by either creating or retaining a job for someone, improving a water system, or providing a community center or even a fire truck.”
Swoope also answered questions about the state agency’s focus on 15 target sectors, which are Aerospace/Aviation, Automotive Assembly, Automotive Suppliers, Communications Information Technology, Contact Centers, Data Centers, Defense/Homeland Security, Fabricated Housing and Housing Components, Food Processing, Metal Fabrication and Steel, Plastics/Polymers/Chemicals, Shared Services Centers, Shipbuilding, Timber/Wood Products, Warehouse and Distribution
“For example, there was a question about how the State Port relates to those targets,” said Swoope. “The port is related to at least five of those targets and there were questions about MDA’s support of the port, which of course we’re very involved in. We gave examples, too, about major job creation and tourism and MDA’s response to the six-point action plan we developed within a week after Katrina. We talked about the Bridge Loan program and thanked them for helping get that passed. There were over 500 loans totaling $12.3 million ($25,000 zero-interest six-month loans) made within six weeks after the storm. Of those, 332 have been extended and 201 have been paid back.”
When the hearing turned to tourism, Swoope rattled off MDA’s latest milestones:
• Southeast Tourism Society awarded the Natchez Trace Compact the Regional Organization of the Year.
• MDA created the Mississippi Trails program.
• MDA secured the Southeast Tourism Society spring meeting for 2007 and Travel South USA for 2008.
• MDA developed marketing partnerships with the New Orleans Saints, Tunica Commercial Airline Service, Meridian Riley Center and Southern Farm Bureau Classic.
• The state agency broke ground on the Mississippi Film Complex.
• More than 300 tourism industry volunteers from the U.S. and Canada participated in Tourism Cares for America on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
• Mississippi Main Street Association added Brandon and Laurel as Certified Hometown Mississippi Retirement communities.
• MDA continued golf/sports marketing efforts.
“We talked about moving someone in MDA to handle the development of tourism trails in the state, such as the Blues Trail, Golf Trail and Civil War Trail. We want to figure out how to do a better job of marketing the assets of the state through the trails program.
“We talked about how proud we were of the tourism team with Craig Ray and the way they were able to retain so many of the conventions in the state that were to be held on the coast by moving them to other locations around the state. They retained over 400 of those conventions after Katrina.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.