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JACK WEATHERLY: Economic development in these parts is a ‘family’ business

A statue Niccolò Machiavelli sitting outside of the Uffizi, in Florence, Italy.

A statue of Niccolò Machiavelli in Florence, Italy.

It’s all in the family when it comes to economic development in the South, if things in these parts are any indication. And I suspect they are.

The recent announcement that Mississippi’s top economic development official, Brent Christensen, is leaving for a similar post in Greensboro, N.C., brings this to mind.

That, and in Arkansas, a new governor, Republican Asa Hutchinson, brought about a change this year at the top of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Christensen and his counterpart in Arkansas, Grant Tennille, might not be “blood kin,” but they have some things in common.

Tennille was replaced by Mike Preston, a 32-year-old up-and-comer who had been tutored for four years by Gray Swoope, who was head of Enterprise Florida and secretary of Commerce.

JACK WEATHERLY

JACK WEATHERLY

Swoope (rhymes with rope) is familiar to Mississippians as head of the Mississippi Development Authority for most of Haley Barbour’s two, four-year terms as governor.

Swoope left a year early, perhaps not wanting to take his chances with Barbour’s successor.

But, equally likely, Swoope’s early departure was part of a strategy, for which Barbour is famous — or infamous.

Barbour returned in 2012 to the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm BGR, which he co-founded in 1987, having served Ronald Reagan as political director at the White House and continuing his rise in the Republican Party. If the firm had sagged any during his gubernatorial years, by 2014 it was in the top 10 in lobbying, according to Bloomberg Government.

Tennille said to me in a recent interview that Barbour is a “legend” as a mover and shaker in economic development. I was a bit surprised by Tennille’s unsolicited praise, even though I was somewhat aware of Barbour’s  D.C. firm.

I had returned to Mississippi five months earlier and had some catching up to do in my home state, from which I departed to join the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock as business editor 13 years earlier.

It soon became obvious to me that Barbour’s record in Mississippi was not what I would call the stuff of legend.

Big, ambitious, yes. And risky.

Two major failures and two major successes — .500 ball.

The fifth and potentially the costliest project for Mississippi taxpayers is in extra innings in a high-scoring game.

Mississippi Power’s Kemper County plant — which is designed to gasify lignite, a low-grade coal, and burn the synthetic gas in its turbines — is two years behind schedule and has not begun producing power with syngas.

Barbour put his interest in BGR in a blind trust from 2004 till 2012, his gubernatorial years.

Meantime he pushed for a law that would allow utilities to add to the rate base assets before they are complete.

Then he championed the Kemper County plant, which the Public Service Commission approved in a 2-1 vote in 2010.

At that time, the Mississippi Business Journal revealed that BGR and the Southern Co., parent of Mississippi Power, had some intriguing social interaction during his hands-off period.

BGR immediately delisted Southern from its website, and all other clients for that matter.

Since then, the initial projected cost of Kemper,  $2.4 billion, has grown to $6.2 billion. Cost to the 186,000 ratepayers served by Mississippi Power has been capped at $2.88 billion, but rates have already risen. The state Supreme Court in February denied the increase, blaming the PSC for slipshod handling of the case, though it let stand the Base Load Act.  The ruling has been appealed.

Three alternative-energy startup companies received a total of about $175 million in state loans, plus other financial backing from Mississippi taxpayers — all pushed by Barbour during his governmental tenure. Aside from 200 jobs at a solar-panel maker at Hattiesburg, the state is owed $100 million for a designed-to-fit solar-panel plant and a deserted biofuel plant on which it has a first lien.

Now Barbour and Swoope have been — surprise — reunited. They announced last month that they have formed an economic development subsidiary of Butler Snow, the Jackson-based law firm with offices in 18 cities.

Before I learned all that, there was a lingering, admittedly frivolous, image I had of Barbour.

A small-town newspaper editor, I, along with a few hundred of my closest journalistic friends, was introduced to Haley Barbour in the mid-’90s at the annual Mississippi Press Association convention.

Holding forth at an afternoon session in Biloxi, Sid Salter — the syndicated columnist and in those days an adept emcee at such functions — referred to Barbour as “a short, fat white boy.”

Barbour — at the time chairman of the Republican National Committee, not to mention head of a major lobbying firm— did not see the humor in that.

But an uncle is subject to ribbing in his own family. And, after all, as Barbour loves to remind people, he’s just an ole boy from Yazoo City.

Another reason I was taken aback by the praise from Tennille has nothing to do with Barbour. Tennille is hardly a by-the-book conservative. In 2014, he stuck his political neck out, the last year of Democrat Mike Beebe’s term as governor.

He endorsed legitimization of gay marriage as a progressive position for furtherance of Arkansas as a good place to do business.

Stick your neck out and someone’s liable to lop your head off.

Make sure someone’s got your back and you’ll live to fight another day.

Speaking of Swoope . . . . He got into business-building at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission about 25 years ago.

He moved back to Mississippi and was president of the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg from 1997 till 2004.

Christensen, a fledgling reporter at the Hattiesburg American, saw the light, dropped that career path and served an apprenticeship under Swoope.

So there’s the portrait. Machiavelli meets the Waltons?

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1015

About Jack Weatherly

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