By JACK WEATHERLY
Is Mississippi better off than it was three years ago?
That’s a fair enough question when it comes to measurable matters such as jobs created and money invested.
The answer is: depends on whom you’re asking. And what you’re asking.
When the Mississippi Development Authority announced April 8 that Brent Christensen was resigning his job as executive director of agency to take a job in North Carolina, it lauded him with compliments and listed his achievements.
Not the least of which were that corporations had invested $2.43 billion and 17,000 jobs had been created in the three-plus years he was head of the single most important economic development agency in Mississippi.
The charge that economic development leaders are given is: add jobs that pay more than the state average.
That’s the way Grant Tennille put it. Tennille was executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission until January.
He was in that position for almost exactly the same length of time as Christensen was in his. The two men are almost the same age. Tennille, at 46, has had one more birthday.
Here are Tennille’s “bragging rights”: $7 billion in corporate investment and 13,175 jobs created.
Because of their proximity, populations, prevailing wages, Mississippi and Arkansas often compete for the same projects.
Competing for industrial projects, what used to be called “smokestack chasing,” has evolved as technology has grown more sophisticated, and, at times, questionable in its practicality.
The New York Times reported in December 2012 in an in-depth series that state and local governments give away $80.4 billion annually in such pursuits.
The new era of economic development started in the mid-’80s with the competition for General Motors new Saturn, which Tennessee won with a “relatively small package” even though then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton offered almost $200 million in tax credits and exemptions, The Times reported.
“But the gates had been opened,” the paper observed.
In 1992, South Carolina lured BMW with a $130 million package, Alabama got Mercedes-Benz for more than $300 million plus the next year.
Mississippi got into the hunt and in 2002 landed the Nissan plant in Canton.
Next came Toyota in Blue Springs, beating out, among others, Arkansas, which had ignored Nissan. Toyota employs about 2,000 and Nissan approximates 6,000.
State economist Darrin Webb’s view of the jobs picture differs from the MDA’s.
He looks at net gain or loss.
For 2012, of which Christensen was MDA director for six months, net jobs gain was .9 percent, followed by .9 percent in 2013 and .7 percent last year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those figures represent less than half the nation’s rate (1.7 percent, 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively).
And they are the lowest rate of any of the 11 states traditionally considered together as they were part of the old Confederacy.
Webb noted that the state still has not recouped 35,000 of the 78,000 jobs lost during the national recession, which lasted from December 2007 till June 2009.
Webb projects a 1 percent growth in jobs for 2015. The state’s unemployment rate stood at 6.8 percent in February, the latest figure available. The U.S. rate was 5.5 percent in March.
Marlo Dorsey, chief marketing director for the MDA, said on Wednesday that the five-year moving average for return on investment made by the agency is $11 realized for every $1 invested. She said she could not immediately provide the amount invested in that period.
The Times reported in December 2012 that Mississippi’s average annual investment is $416 million, compared with Arkansas’ $431 million, Alabama’s $277 million and Louisiana’s $1.79 billion. Texas leads all states, with $19.1 billion annually, according to The Times.
Another way of looking at a state economy was taken in a snapshot published by Business Insider in August 2014.
Mississippi’s economy was ranked 38th based on eight indicators, among which were gross state product growth, percent change in wages, unemployment rate and nonfarm payroll jobs.
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