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Momentum Mississippi targets defense industry, tourism and film — and holding workforce training accountable

The wheels started spinning at a rapid rate when an industrial Realtor in Greenwood found out that Indiana automotive parts manufacturer Raybestos Products was looking at 14 states for an expansion, and Mississippi was one of them.

The Realtor called the Greenwood-Leflore Industrial Board, and the group went to work determining what it would take to draw the company to Greenwood. In the end, it came down to incentives.

“That’s the way it is,” said Ronnie Robertson, chairman of the board. “You have to look for any additional resources you can find to make the bottom line look better.”
In the rapid-fire race that ensued, Robertson called Sen. Tommy Robertson (R-Moss Point) for help, and he suggested they contact the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). MDA pointed them to incentives they could use to lure Raybestos, namely the ACE Fund and the Development Infrastructure Program (DIP) through Momentum Mississippi.

Robertson believes the state’s workforce training programs and the incentives through Momentum Mississippi were key in landing Raybestos.

“Raybestos would not be over there doing what they’re doing without Momentum,” said Robertson.

Momentum Mississippi is an economic incentive program that was started two years ago by Gov. Haley Barbour when he reactivated the 1987 Economic Development and Planning Act.

Momentum Mississippi follows Blueprint Mississippi recommendations that were voted on by more than 1,000 Mississippians from around the state in 22 different communities. More than 100 volunteer business leaders from around the state donate their time to Momentum.

“We have people from all sorts of industries and businesses giving their time because they want to see Mississippi prosper,” said Barbour.

Momentum picked up speed when the Legislature passed some $30 million in bonds during a special session in 2005 to help the state pursue high-growth industries, fund research and development for commercial applications and increase the productivity and profitability of existing industry. Since then, 23 counties have used incentives offered through Momentum programs. The ACE program, which Momentum calls an incentive “to close the deal,” was used for American Greetings in Neshoba County, Bearing Point in Forrest County, Roll Form Group in Tishomingo County and Omega Proteins in Jackson County.

DIP grants, which are used by counties and municipalities to finance public infrastructure projects, were used by Lowndes County for Eurocopter and by Lauderdale County for Tower Automotive, among others.

Momentum Mississippi board members recently approved four priorities during the annual meeting, starting with $4 million that Barbour is requesting for research and development at state universities to develop commercial applications for Mississippi companies. It is driven not by universities, but by high-tech companies that are partnering with universities to develop new products, said Anthony Topazi, chairman of Momentum.

Momentum’s other top priorities are:

• growth of the tourism industry by establishing economic incentives that would attract new businesses to the state and increase tourism. Eligible businesses include historical sites and museums, golf courses and theme parks and water parks.

• incentives to draw filmmakers to Mississippi with an increase in the film rebate percentage to 20% of local spending under $1 million, 25% for local spending between $1 million and $5 million and 30% for all spending in excess of $5 million.

• an initiative to expand the growth and development of the defense industry. Mississippi has more than 1,600 defense contractors and approximately 26,000 defense employees.

According to Barbour, Momentum’s Mississippi Defense Initiative will increase collaboration among defense contractors, federal, state and local government and the universities.

Yes, but is it working?

With workforce training at the forefront of Mississippi’s recruitment efforts, Momentum Mississippi has created an accountability program to measure the results of training dollars. Are people who go through the training getting jobs or better jobs? Are companies getting better workers? Pilot programs are underway at Northeast Community College, Itawamaba Community College, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the WIN Job Centers to find out.

“In the mid-1990s the state started looking at workforce training and tried to go down a path to create world-class training, but you’re not going to know unless you’ve measured it,” said Topazi.

The accountability program received approval from 98% of the board at the meeting.

Also in the works is Momentum’s Mississippi Angel Fund, the state’s only venture capital fund funded exclusively by private investors. It is led by John Palmer, Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company, Jim Barksdale and Ben Walton.

The goal is to raise $10 million by the end of 2006 and $20 million by the end of 2007. Topazi said $6 million has been raised so far, and the Angel Fund has already funded two start-up companies, ANI Pharmaceuticals of Gulfport and SemiSouth Laboratories of Starkville. “They were trying to get to the next level, and they needed some venture capital,” said Topazi.

ANI is a specialty pharmaceutical company that manufactures liquid and powder pharmaceuticals and has performed contract manufacturing for some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. SemiSouth is a silicon carbide-based semiconductor company that was started in 2000 by two Mississippi State University professors who were involved in silicon carbide research and development.

Barbour said Momentum is offering incentives to companies that were previously ineligible, and this is critical in helping the state attract service industries and high-tech companies.

“Momentum’s biggest contribution to Mississippi is its teaching state government how to tailor our economic development programs to what’s really happening in the American economy,” said Barbour.

Contact MBJ Contributing Writer Kelly Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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