In Gray Swoope, Mississippi lost its last top economic development professional to Florida in the spring of 2011. Now Mississippi has reached into Florida to bring Brent Christensen, Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce chief, to the Magnolia State as a replacement.
Christensen, a 10-year-year president and CEO of the Gainesville Chamber, will start work sometime in early June as executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. Real estate investor Leland Speed and later Jim Barksdale, former Netscape CEO, have filled the post on interim basis.
Christensen, in brief remarks in Jackson upon his appointment, called it a “gift” to come to a state with an economic development infrastructure and a leader in Gov. Phil Bryant who is making economic development a priority.
The 42-year-old Duke University economics graduate and holder of an MBA from the University of South Florida started his career in economic development in Hattiesburg with the Area Development Partnership under David Rumbarger, now head of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo.
Rumburger hired Christensen away from the Hattiesburg American, where he was business editor, according to The Associated Press.
“He shone above the rest of them,” Rumbarger said in an interview with The AP. “He’s a listener. He’ll understand before he acts and reacts.”
Chip Morgan, executive VP of the Delta Council, the region’s economic development arm, said Christensen has a strong reputation among professionals in his field. “And he trained under one of the best, David Rumbarger. I have heard that he is just as good.”
Christensen said that his work with the Hattiesburg partnership let him see first hand the “great economic development professionals” working in Mississippi.
A career in recruiting and retaining jobs has been immensely gratifying, he said. “In the end, it’s being able to have such a significant impact on peoples’ lives, helping them to find that first job, helping them go back to work, helping them climb a career ladder.”
In his Gainesville post, he oversaw the Chamber’s activities as well as an economic development entity, the Council for Economic Outreach. The Council operated solely through private sector funding, though it often worked with the City of Gainesville and Alachua County government on business recruitment and retention, said Mitch Glaeser, a Gainesville entrepreneur and chairman-elect of the Gainesville chamber.
“We decided many years ago that we wouldn’t go after city or county funding,” Glaeser said in an last week. “The reality is that the city and county have not been on the same page as the CEO and the Chamber. We wanted to make our own decisions.”
Some of those differences stemmed from the Gainesville area’s efforts to balance economic development and quality of life, according to press reports.
Glaeser said the MDA is gaining a uniquely qualified professional. “I’m a huge fan of Brent’s. You are going to find out in short order that you have an individual who can unite and listen. He is one of the most respected economic developer leaders not only in Florida but in the country.”
He called the hiring of Christensen “a huge gain for Mississippi.”
The current Chamber chairman, Michael Gallagher, cited Christensen’s strengths in collaborating with local governments, the universities, as well as small businesses and large employers. “He has been transformational,” said Gallagher, a health care insurance executive who has worked with Christensen as a Chamber board member for the past eight years.
Tommy McIntosh, past chairman of the Gainesville Chamber’s board, said Christensen was skillful in building support for a plan called Innovation Gainesville, raising a record amount of money to support the Chamber’s efforts even in the midst of Florida’s fierce recession.
“Brent put the structure in place and the process in place and he was the guardian of that effort,” McIntosh said. “People saw the blueprint and said, ‘I can believe in that.’”
As chamber chief, he has successfully leveraged the strengths of the University of Florida, Shands Teaching Hospital, and the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital to attract innovative companies in both bio-tech and bio-med, as well as creative economy businesses such as 400-employee IT company MindTree, Gallagher said.
Those successes in the health care sector likely caught the attention of Gov. Bryant in reviewing candidates for the post. Bryant is making a priority of leveraging Mississippi’s medical-sector assets to draw more health-care companies.
Christensen will assume a lot of challenges, including helping to whittle down a stubborn 10 percent statewide jobless rate (Alachua County has an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent). He will also encounter stiff competition from economic development rivals in other Southern states, where the intensity of efforts to attract new businesses has been likened to a civil war.
Bryant, in a press statement announcing the appointment, said Christensen’s ability to attract new economic investment to the state and expand existing businesses helped to convince him to make the appointment. “Brent has a proven economic development track record, and he sees the importance of business sectors like health care and energy,” Bryant said.
Christensen would be the first permanent MDA director since March 2011, when Swoope left to head Florida’s economic development efforts. The appointment requires Senate confirmation, which is expected in 2013.
Christensen will be paid up to $230,000. Of that, $183,000 will be state money and up to another $47,000 will be paid by the Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development. MDA spokesman Dan Turner said Christensen and Bryant would agree on goals and Christensen would get the entire $47,000 only if he met those goals.
The Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development, a private non-profit led by bankers, utility executives and industrial leaders, will also chip in $15,000 to pay for Christensen’s moving expenses and provide him with a vehicle. Turner said the partnership has already raised the money and that no person or entity was allowed to contribute more than $5,000.
The arrangement became possible because of a law this year that allows the MDA director to receive extra pay from outside sources, with no limit. Contributors are supposed to be listed on the agency’s web page.
The same law limits state money to $183,000, or 150 percent of the governor’s salary.
Christensen’s base salary will exceed those of his counterparts in Tennessee (Bill Hagerty, $180,000), Alabama (Greg Canfield, $162,232), Arkansas (Grant Tennille, $120,000), Georgia (Chris Cummiskey ($71,000 in last seven months of fiscal 2011) and Florida (Gray Swoope, $130,000). In the region, only Louisiana would pay more.
Stephen Moret in Louisnna is the highest paid economic development executive in the nation at $320,000. Swoope’s salary package has incentives that can’t exceed $300,000.
Without the private sector contributions, it’s unlikely Mississippi would have landed Christensen, according to Barksdale, who took part in the recruitment.
“If we had not been able to do that, we would not have been able to pay him more than what he was making in Gainesville,” Barksdale said. “It was a necessity.”
Financial statements from 2010 for the Gainesville Chamber show Christensen made $160,053 in salary, plus $26,476 in retirement, deferred compensation and nontaxable benefits.
Christensen will not be speaking further to the media until he settles into the job, the MDA says.