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Mississippi’s economic development evolution

In the 1930’s Mississippi marketed itself to manufacturing companies to relocate or expand to the state in return for incentives to do so. Since then economic development in Mississippi has evolved into a comprehensive activity involving numerous government and nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to increase the wealth of the state and its communities and to improve the overall quality of life.

To gain insight into the state government effort one need only to look at the historical names and divisions of the state agency created for the purpose of economic development, which is today known as the Mississippi Development Authority. Over the years, the agency has been renamed, reorganized and merged with other agencies several times.

It began in 1936 as the Mississippi Industrial Commission under the administration of Gov. Hugh White, and had as its main objective the balancing of agriculture with industry. White, a wealthy businessman and former mayor of Columbia, had recruited a Chicago manufacturer to his hometown by using incentives. The legislative act creating the Commission was known as the “Balance Agriculture with Industry” bill, and it authorized counties, supervisors’ districts, and municipalities to acquire industrial enterprises, to issue bonds or other obligations, to operate such industries, to dispose of them, and make contracts relative to such industries.”

One of the first national magazine advertisements appeared in the May, 1937 issue of Forbes magazine contained in part the following text:

So certain are the people of Mississippi that profit awaits those worthwhile industrial enterprises which locate within in its borders that they have, by law, devised a plan to share the cost of industrial development in the state. This is not only in the form of tax exemption by the municipalities and counties but actual assistance with the cost of land and buildings. This new law, the first of its kind, makes Mississippi an industrial haven for practically every form of industry, to the mutual benefit of both the manufacturer and the community …

During the administration of Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. the Mississippi Industrial Commission was renamed the Mississippi Board of Development. In 1944 the Board of Development was abolished by legislative act and replaced by the Mississippi Agricultural and Industrial Board. In 1979, it was reorganized and renamed the Mississippi Department of Economic Development. The act creating the “new” agency provided that it be composed of three divisions: Industrial Development, Tourism Development, and Marketing. In 1989, it became the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development and by law was composed of three divisions: the Division of Economic Development, the Division of Community Development, and the Division of Support Services. In 2000, it was renamed the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). Today it has over 250 employees and is organized into three groups: Economic Development, Asset Development and Administration and Financial Services.

All the while that state government was engaged in economic development many local communities realized the value of having an organization to recruit industry and improve the local economy. For the most part, local chambers of commerce had filled that role. In 1948, a different model emerged when in Tupelo the Community Development Foundation was formed. Today, it would be uncommon to find a county or municipality without some form of a local economic development organization.

In 1963 a group of economic developers formed the Mississippi Industrial Development Council Inc. (MIDC). As the name implies, the Council was composed mostly of industrial recruiters and was created to unite the efforts of its members in furthering the economic development of the state and to have a networking organization. On July 1, 1995, MIDC changed its name to the Mississippi Economic Development Council, Inc. (MEDC) and reorganized its officer structure to reflect the current development environment in Mississippi and the broad interests of the Council membership of over 500 members. In July 1998, the Mississippi Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (MACCE) became a division of MEDC.

In 1984, downtown revitalization was such a concern that an effort was made to form a state program modeled after the Main Street program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. At the time, many local communities were suffering from a loss of retailers in their downtowns. By 1989 the program had gotten off the ground, and is now a statewide organization serving over 50 communities. It has been recognized by the National Main Street Center on numerous occasions as one of the premiere Main Street programs in the country.

The Mississippi Economic Council (MEC), the state chamber of commerce, is playing a leading role in economic development with its Momentum Mississippi and Blueprint Mississippi programs and is advocating the link between education and economic development.

Utility companies have long been in the industrial recruitment business, but have also added local community development projects to their list of activities. Entergy, Mississippi Power Company, TVA and the Electric Power Association of Mississippi have full-time economic developers on staff.

A significant and evolving trend in economic development is regionalism. Economic developers realized that companies considering new operations in the state did not look only political boundaries. They looked at market areas either for distribution, sales or workforce. This resulted in the formation of regional economic development organizations. Most began as networking and communication entities. It was important for economic developers to know what is going on two counties away, for example. Some examples of regional economic development organizations in Mississippi are the Mississippi Delta Developers Association, the Southwest Mississippi Partnership and the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development.

Often it was initiatives or specific projects that resulted in regionalism. Probably the most impressive of these was the so-called PUL Alliance, which was comprised of Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties that was formed to acquire property and market the region to an automobile manufacturer. The result was the Toyota facility. Regionalism also includes efforts that cross state lines. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor initiative reaches from Northwest Florida to New Orleans. Industrial development projects in east Mississippi and northeast Mississippi are shared with Alabama and Tennessee.

An evolving economic development initiative is focusing on Mississippi’s so-called creative economy. Indeed, the Mississippi Arts Commission is as much an economic and community development agency as it is an arts organization.

Although economic development organizations have proliferated in Mississippi since the 1930’s, the overall goal of improving the economy of the state remains the same. It will be interesting to see what lies ahead.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.

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