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Economic developers focusing on existing business, relationship building

Down cycles provide one commodity — time

On Oct. 23, Mississippians reaped the benefits of the overhauled state incentive legislative package passed by lawmakers in 2005 as Momentum Mississippi.

Centering on that day in the sparkle of fall, the state saw a new steel mill come to Amory, GE Aviation opening in Batesville, a plant expansion in Greenville and earlier that week 200 jobs saved in Corinth.

“The beauty of how that legislation supported new business and strengthened existing business incentives was really highlighted that week,” said Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), adding the state agency has long had a balanced approach to economic development. “We’re fortunate that recruiting is going well, despite the slow economy. Our recruiting team has been relentless chasing projects, and is keenly aware of pursuing opportunities. Right now, they’re very focused on a higher winning percentage.”

Buzz Canup, who helped Mississippi land the Nissan project and now consults from Texas, said most economic developers are still charging full speed ahead with recruiting new industry—as they should.

“Even though we’re seeing some companies delaying projects and reassessing the economy, we’re seeing the majority of companies moving forward with their business plans,” said Canup, also pointing out that without a doubt, economic developers should be focusing on existing business and industry and retaining the businesses and jobs they already have.

“My philosophy, and this is not new, has always been that the greatest asset of any state or community is their existing business and industry,” said Canup. “States and communities should spend at least as much time and energy interfacing with existing businesses as they spend chasing new investment and new jobs. History proves that typically over half of the new jobs created within a state are created by existing businesses. Good housekeeping is a good investment.”

To better serve Mississippi companies, Swoope recently made changes to MDA’s Existing Industry and Business Division by naming Chandler Russ as the new director. Russ most recently worked as a project manager in Saltillo for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Before that, he was executive director of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Foundation.

“We also added two new posts to staff with seasoned economic developers,” said Swoope. “Jim Craig, who formerly held the director post and has been with MDA for many years, has expertise in both recruiting new business and assisting existing industry. We call him the mastermind of financing.”

Craig’s help was evident Dec. 1, when Community Development Foundation president David Rumbarger presented Cooper Tire with a $30-million state-backed Retention & Growth Incentives package to retain 1,200 jobs in Tupelo. Cooper Tire, Lee County’s third-largest employer, occupies the former Penn Tire facility. The Findlay, Ohio-based tire maker is researching a “network capacity study” that will likely result in closing one of its four U.S. plants. With one plant located in the corporation’s hometown probably remaining intact, that leaves three plants in Tupelo, Albany, Ga., and Texarkana, Ark. The decision is expected to be made by Jan. 19.

“The state did a fantastic job helping us with the proposal,” said Rumbarger, pointing out the proposal includes two parts: an existing industry component and an expansion component “for when the economy picks up again.”

Rumbarger, also president of the Mississippi Economic Development Council (MEDC) and a representative of the Memphis Branch of the Federal Reserve Board, said Northeast Mississippi, which has been particularly hit hard with furniture assembly facilities closing since the industry’s domestic manufacturing peak in 2000-01, has maintained an edge, thanks to the advent of the Toyota automotive assembly plant coming online soon in the tri-county area.

“We’d hoped the bell curve would start up sooner,” admitted Rumbarger. “But we’re very fortunate to have 4,000 jobs that need to be filled within the next 24 to 36 months. We’ve already had seven suppliers announce, so that’s all very good.”

Russ said among the different tactics MDA is incorporating into its economic development plan during this slow cycle, he’s encouraging economic developers to work on community improvement projects “so when the economy turns, they’re poised and ready for growth.”

“Doing this ultimately gives them a win/win,” he said. “As the economy improves, they should see growth from both the existing customer base they worked to protect and the growth of new businesses coming in.”

Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, who markets an eight-county area in Central Mississippi, said many economic developers are taking this time to strengthen relationships between business and government.

“Our existing business is doing a lot of workforce training right now to upgrade employees’ skills, so they’ll have an edge when production cranks up again,” said O’Neill.

To help boost the economy locally, O’Neill is promoting business doing business at home. “You usually think of asking individuals to shop locally, but by doing the same thing with business, that action improves their marketability. It sounds simple, but it takes an effort from everyone involved to keep work from going across state lines.”

Carol Hardwick, executive director of MEDC, said recent new and existing business announcements have proved that despite the slow economy, expected to pick up in mid-2009, “Mississippi has been coming on strong, especially in the automotive, aerospace and steel industries and is continuing that trend.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Jeter at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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