At’s all about jobs. That’s the mantra that makes acceptable virtually any effort at recruiting industry to this state or whichever state in which you might happen to reside.
As mere voters and taxpayers, we apparently don’t know enough about the technicalities of industrial recruitment to offer anything of value to the effort. We are kept in the dark about what may be moving into our neighborhoods because, well, we’re just too ignorant to make a sensible decision about what is best for us.
And we sure aren’t smart enough to question the wisdom of pumping millions of our tax dollars into the recruitment, locating, construction and employee-training efforts.
Or are we?
What I know and many, many other people across Mississippi and the United States know is that it’s time to end the craziness that is the current state of economic development. Throwing money at industry to sway them to locate in our midst must end.
The latest big project in Mississippi is the Toyota assembly plant in Blue Springs, a sleepy little Union County community a few miles west of Tupelo. Landing it was a coup for Gov. Haley Barbour, Gray Swoope of Mississippi Development Authority, David Rumbarger of Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation, Randy Kelley of the PUL Alliance — a coalition of Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties — and, indeed, some others in the region.
Announced in February 2007, it was touted as the answer to the loss of furniture-making jobs moving overseas in a region that not long ago counted 50,000 jobs in that industry. Bye, bye, furniture; hello, automobiles.
A mere $325-million investment of our tax dollars would get us 2,000 jobs, as initially announced, with Toyota and another 2,000 with suppliers locating around the mother plant. (The former figure has since been decreased to 1,500.) The downside is a real downer: the teetering international economy prompted Toyota to postpone indefinitely equipping, staffing and opening the plant.
Since my opposition to financial incentives for private industry has often been derided, I want it on the record that I am glad Toyota chose this region, and I will be as glad as the next guy if it someday opens.
I am not glad, however, about having to pay for it. Toyota — add to that list Nissan, SeverCorr, Eurocopter, General Electric and a host of others — was going to build a plant somewhere in the U.S. Instead of the competing communities and states entering a secret bidding war to land it, the plant should have been awarded with no regard to financial incentives. Anywhere.
Negotiations for these monies are kept secret because the companies demand it, not because they don’t want competitors to know what they’re doing, as Barbour often claims. The companies don’t want competing states to know what each other is proposing because they want to make the best deal they can get. Then the company picks the plum.
These funds could be better spent. Broadband Tennessee, a state-financed effort to get broadband (high-speed) Internet into every home and business in that state, a universally recognized economic-development achievement, surpassed the 50 percent mark in its effort last June. I asked MDA directly last summer what it is doing in that arena for Mississippi citizens: “We’re not involved with that at this time,” said the spokesman. (At that time, Mississippi had 23 counties that did not have the first high-speed connection — not a single home or business — in them.)
Sometime during the evolution of economic development, the primary weapon in the recruiters’ arsenals became financial packages. Have we come too far to stop that practice? No, of course not, but incentive to cease incentives will not come from economic developers or the Governor’s Office or MDA.
It will have to come from citizens ready to spend their taxes elsewhere and from businesses that don’t have a prayer of getting incentives for themselves. Change will likely have to come from a national mechanism, something that takes the secret bidding wars off the table in Mississippi, Massachusetts, Montana, Missouri and all other states.
I don’t know what that mechanism will be, and I may well not know Economics 101, as has been suggested. But I do know that I’m not going to help pay for construction of a car dealer’s showroom and then buy his cars, anymore than losing tens of thousands of existing jobs is supplanted by gaining 4,000.
Contact MBJ contributing writer C. Richard Cotton at email@example.com .