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Speakers say state’s economy sound despite national slowdown

The message was hopeful and encouraging at Hancock Bank’s 41st Gulf Coast Economic Symposium earlier this month. Three scheduled speakers and Gov. Haley Barbour — a surprise visitor — told the crowd of 1,000 business and community leaders that the national economy is not all bleak and the state’s outlook continues to improve. The featured speakers were Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority; Jimmy G. Gouras, president of Urban Planning Consultants; and Peter F. Ricchiuti, assistant dean of Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business.

“I believe Mississippi’s economy is the strongest it’s ever been,” Barbour said. “Per capita income is up 26%, and there are three things that will position Mississippi well in dealing with a softening national economy.”

The governor listed those three factors as the energy industry that is gaining a foothold in Mississippi; the continuing strength of the defense industry in the state; and getting the Toyota plant in Northeast Mississippi, which he described as the most-sought-after economic development project in the country last year. He added that the state must do things to improve its infrastructure to continue to succeed in economic development of this caliber.

“All parts of the state are doing well, but there is weakness in Southwest Mississippi and the Delta,” Barbour said. “It’s not as easy to create jobs there as in other parts of the state. They can do high-level manufacturing there but it’s not as easy a sale.”

Ricchiuti, whose résumé includes a successful Wall Street career and five years as Louisiana’s assistant state treasurer and chief investment officer, pointed out that there must be two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product growth to have a recession, and we have not had even one yet.

“The country has had 10 recessions since World War II and we always come out of them,” he said. “A typical recession lasts ten months in length. The weak dollar will bring about a surge in U.S. manufacturing, and we’re doing the right things to solve the sub prime lending crisis.”

The professor is pleased with the long-term outlook for the Gulf Coast area and said it’s the best place to ride out a recession. “There are a lot of positives going on,” he said. “We have the ports, tourism, the oil and gas industry and growing healthcare. All of those are a big part of the area’s growth.”

Another reason he’s optimistic is that today’s public companies are in great shape with clean balance sheets and lots of cash. He also believes financial stocks are good ones to buy now even though they don’t seem like they are.

“I think water is the next oil and will become more important as an investment,” he said. “Other areas of good investment are the leisure and healthcare industries.”

Negatives for the country include the budget and trade deficits, weak dollar, and energy issues with oil and gas prices remaining stubbornly high, Ricchiuti said.

Swoope told the crowd that the state is enjoying unprecedented growth. “We’re concerned with the national economy, but we’re relentless in beating down the bushes to find economic development,” he said. “More people are working in Mississippi than ever before, and that’s despite having 70,000 people file for unemployment after Hurricane Katrina.”

Having more people now working fuels the economy and helps all businesses. That supports Swoope’s philosophy of changing minds and changing lives with economic development.

“A Toyota project changes people’s minds about Mississippi,” he said. “We have sophisticated manufacturing such as PSL America, GE Aviation, PACCAR, and are approaching statewide pre-Katrina figures for tourism. These things have an impact on lives.”

Gouras, who works as a consultant with MDA and cities and counties around the state, explained different sources of funding for economic development. Those include HUD funds, Community Development Block Grant funds, economic development grants and tax increment financing.

“HUD funds are cumbersome but we’re blessed to have them because cities and counties are eligible,” he said. “The economic development opportunities we have are numerous.”

One of those opportunities is the Economic Development Highway Program with the legislature providing funding and MDA administering it. Past projects included the $3.2 million widening of Caillavet Street in Biloxi, $3.5 million for access roads for the Crossroads Shopping Center in Gulfport, and $8 million for access roads for the DeSoto County Hospital.

The symposium was begun in the mid-1960s by Hancock Bank with a group of 25 local business men and women. Through the years, the event has showcased some of America’s most accomplished corporate and economic leaders.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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