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OPINION: Mayor is more than a ribbon cutter

In my lifetime, the job of a small town mayor has changed quite a bit. The job description was once characterized more by ceremonial responsibilities than anything else – ribbon cutting, speech making and giving an occasional key to the city. While all of those responsibilities are still a part of the job, the small town mayor of 2009 is increasingly looked to as “Economic Developer in Chief.”

The era of globalization has changed the paradigm for business and industry across the rural United States. Stable industry that once sustained towns of 10,000 to 30,000 throughout the heartland of America now all too often finds a home abroad. When the local plant is boarded up, the people it leaves behind look to the mayor to lead.

As I run for mayor of Starkville, I’m well aware that should I get the opportunity to serve, my success will be judged in large measure by the development of the local economy. Although the private sector ultimately drives development, my challenge is to create an environment that is a magnet for economic growth.

When it comes to resources that can attract development, Starkville is blessed. It is the home of a top 100 research university and a strong public school system. Additionally, more than 45 percent of the adult population has a college degree, which gives it the most educated labor force in the state. Strong as its attributes may be, Starkville’s potential to attract business and industry is hampered by factors such as relatively small industrial workforce and limited access to major highways.

In small and mid-size communities, the key to overcoming shortcomings and allowing attributes to shine, rests in developing regional partnerships. In the case of Starkville, that means coordinating a shared economic development strategy with partners in Columbus and West Point and throughout the Golden Triangle. By pushing together rather than pulling against each other, Starkville’s wealth of intellectual capital is aided by traditional industrial workforces of Columbus and West Point. Additionally, the region as a whole touches Mississippi Highways 45, 82 and 25. In contrast, none of the three major communities in the Golden Triangle touches all three major highways on its own.

Undoubtedly, taking a regional approach to rural economic development creates the rising tide that lifts all boats. Getting there is easier said than done. When communities feel the pinch of off-shoring and a recession, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to engage in competitive industrial recruitment against neighbors in the region. Nevertheless, for the small town mayor, the path to becoming an economic development magnet is paved by developing regional partnerships. In Starkville, it’s time we started paving that path!

Parker Wiseman, who is running for mayor of Starkville, submitted this Op-Ed column for the Mississippi Business Journal. For a public offical or newsmaker to contribute an Op-Ed column, contact MBJ managing editor Ross Reily at ross.reily@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

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