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‘I believe in Jackson and always have,’ says metro developer

JACKSON — In every city a little rain must fall, and Mississippi’s Capital City is no exception. So what do negative factors — or perceived negative factors — have on economic development? Not a lot, according to some professional economic developers. They say rumors, the crime rate, the state of public schools and the mayor’s latest antics don’t weigh in with business investors nearly as much as a trained workforce and business opportunities.

Mike Peters, owner of Peters Real Estate and a key developer in the revitalization of downtown Jackson, says negative issues have not been a factor for him. “I believe in Jackson and always have,” he said. “I’m not investing in a four-year mayor. I’m making 20-year real estate investments.”

He says all cities have problems, and he deals with the city workers who’re on the job every day working with developers on zoning and permits. “We all want to improve things in the city, but there’s crime everywhere including the suburbs,” he said. “As for the schools, that’s not an issue for downtown development.”

However, Ross Tucker says that regardless of what anyone thinks of city schools, residents have shown true commitment to make things better by passing a school bond issue in 2006 for major improvements.

As director of the Metro Jackson Economic Development Alliance, Tucker is working with the whole area surrounding the Capital City.

“Negatives play a role, but the main thing looked at by all companies we work with is the available workforce,” he said. “That’s the first thing they consider. Then, they look at available space or a building. While it is nice to have a mayor and supervisors that are pro business, it’s not to say they’ll agree on everything with investors, and it does not weigh in that much with long-term investment.”

Tucker says companies come in as part of the community. He and his organization try to bring them in and tell them about the great attributes of the entire area. “This is the most populated area in the state and we’re very attractive,” he said. “The quality of life is important.”

Quality of life is the mantra of Angie Godwin, executive director of the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg, as she works with her area.

“When five communities can deliver the same main things, how do you set yourself apart?” she asks. “Companies ask if their senior management will want to come here. In the eleventh hour, it’s quality of life that’s driving a competitive market.”

She makes the point that investors have negative headlines available to them online, but she feels other issues are more important. “The primary concern is stable leadership and the opportunity to interact at the public level as smoothly as possible,” she said. “Independent public entities are not as important to companies and they don’t look at city and county lines.”

Godwin says the driving issues today are different for three reasons: access to information which changes what people know and can know; the growing strain on the workforce nationally, which will be the stiffest competition over the next few years; and the amount of aggressive competition seeking economic development.

Downtown Jackson is safer than it’s ever been, according to John Lawrence, president of Downtown Jackson Partners. In 1996 when the organization was started, there were 460 criminal incidences downtown. That number was reduced to 300 and continued to decline with only 75 such incidences last year.

“We’re proud of that,” he said. “With all that’s going on downtown with workers and visitors, it’s pretty remarkable.”

He feels that an area’s negative factors don’t really affect economic development. “We talk about it, but it doesn’t hurt. Developers want to know there’s business to be done here and they’ll come if there is,” he said. “They ask if people want to live and eat downtown. Our business leaders keep on doing what they’re doing. They’re not stopping because of something the mayor does or what’s said at city council.”

Dr. Chip Mason, dean of Belhaven College’s School of Business, doesn’t focus on negatives either. “We’re more aware of these things than outsiders are,” he says.

He is interested in the city and state’s efforts to expand trade borders, noting that China is becoming a large trade partner.

“We’re one of eight cities in the country that will have a trade mission from China. It’s a fairly high-level trade mission and China is helping us get on the map,” he said. “Belhaven College is involved with China and currently has three students studying there.”

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

About Lynn Lofton

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