Skip Skaggs, director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Existing Industry and Business Division, promised a positive message last week just before he spoke to a group of local foresters.
And, he delivered — eventually.
But, while Skaggs’ presentation was essentially a broad overview of economic development efforts in the state and the role forestry plays now and its importance in the future, attendees seemed to be more interested in discussing the condition of the state’s roads and bridges, governmental relations and regulations.
Skaggs played to a packed house during the gathering in Brandon. Attendees, who enjoyed a catfish dinner, included members of the Rankin County Forestry Association, those who have timber interest in other counties but reside in Rankin County and invited guests.
“We must focus on our natural resources,” Skaggs told the crowd, “and how to add value to them.” Mississippi cannot build its economy on labor, he added, pointing to the offshoring of jobs in the textile industry as a prime example.
“Land is not going anywhere. It’s stable,” Skaggs said. “Right now, (economic developers) are working under an inverted model — we have more competitors than customers. Because of the economy, we have fewer new or expanding business projects to go after. So, we have to look at what we have. We’re an ag state, and we have to build off of that.”
He went on to list a few of the things prospects are looking for when site-prospecting. These include highways/transportation, labor costs, taxes, construction costs and proximity to markets.
The state’s economic development efforts are further challenged by our global economy, he said. The financial woes of Greece and the European Union, North Korean saber-rattling and China’s growing labor costs as a few of the uncertainties.
“It’s the new normal — the world’s crazy, so get used to it,” Skaggs said with a smile. He added, “The U.S. is still the safest investment going, and the world knows it.”
Skaggs added more causes for concern, including energy-related issues, changing demographics, workforce training and integrating new technology.
He closed by turning to the positive news — housing starts are up, wood pellet facilities are coming on line, mills are ramping up or refiring, forest owners are getting better prices after a nearly-decade slump for those in the timber industry.
“I believe we’ve hit the bottom. We’re trending the right way,” Skaggs said.
Opening the floor for questions, the state’s roads and bridges immediately took center stage. Several attendees questioned why the state is not appropriating more funds for highway and bridge projects.
Rodney Toombs, region manager at Resource Management Service, LLC and president of the Rankin County Forestry Association, said he knew landowners that were trucking “50 to 60, even up to 110 miles” to market, and safe roads and bridges were essential to foresters.
Skaggs pointed out that it is the Legislature appropriates funds, and that it was Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves who decided against any bond issuances two years ago.
Tedrick Ratcliff, executive vice president of the Mississippi Forestry Association, worked on road issues during the last legislative session, and offered a rehash of what happened — a bill to raise a fuel tax for roadwork died in the House and the Senate voted to form a study committee to look into a new funding mechanism.
Skaggs quickly added that he thought good roads and bridges would become even more of an issue in South Mississippi and its growing wood pellet industry. A covered wood pellet conveyor is being installed at the Port of Pascagoula. Skaggs said he expects more wood pellet companies to locate near the port so they could truck in their products unless they have direct water access to Pascagoula.
“If you use rail and you have to change trains even once, the numbers just don’t work — it is no longer attractive,” he said.
Skaggs also fielded a couple of questions about governmental relations and regulations, particularly U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards that many see as a threat. He said the MDA leans on Mississippi’s delegation in Washington to deal with federal agencies and regulators.
“Unfortunately, for too many folks the words ‘taxes’ and ‘government’ are four letters long now,” Skaggs said.