By JACK WEATHERLY
Blake Wilson has continued to make the Mississippi Economic Council a statewide organization.
As the third chief executive of the MEC, he said he has built on the foundation established by M.B. Swayze, who led the organization after it was established in 1949.
“He went around the state. He had an old Valiant. Everybody told me about Mr. Swayze and his old Valiant.”
“He went to all these town meetings.”
“I kind of went back to that model, and it worked.”
In 1997, there were 478 organization members, and membership has grown to 1,067, Wilson said.
Wilson will retire on June 16 after 19 years as president and chief executive officer of the MEC.
All told, he has been in chamber and association work for 37 years of his 47-year career, which includes nine years in newspapering.
He and his wife, Ann, plan to spend summers in a cottage that has been in her family for a long time on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland between Annapolis and Baltimore.
Otherwise, they’ll be in Mississippi, near Brandon. “We’re Mississippians,” he said.
Swayze was followed by Bob Pittman, who was director for 33 years and “built a very solid program,” Wilson said.
But “this organization is not about the director,” Wilson said. “It truly is about the volunteer leadership.”
He was executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
“I was very careful to not come in here with a bunch of preconceived ideas and plans to make changes.”
He went around the state and held 44 small meetings, not amounting to “town meetings,” he said.
He asked three questions at each of those meetings: what does your community offer, what does it need, and what “drives you crazy” locally or in the state.
They were impressed with the inroads that Alabama and other Southern states were making in the automotive industry.
“We were not a player. We were not going after it.”
Then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove called a special session of the Legislature in August 2000 and Advantage Mississippi was passed.
While Wilson says that the MEC had nothing to do with the actual recruiting of Nissan, which selected Canton, it assisted and coordinated.
Wilson used the best technology of the era, the facsimile machine, to reach out across the state, and bring people to the Capitol.
The secret weapon in Mississippi is the fact that “everybody knows everybody,” he said.
What separates them is the geography of the state. So the MEC “shrank the miles between them with the fax.”
Now, of course, the Internet has taken over, and there is live streaming of, say, the Legislative Scramblers, which bring lawmakers and the business community together.
“It has become very successful,” he said.
While membership has grown, it has become more racially diversified.
The MEC staff of 13 is about 40 percent African-American, and MEC membership, Wilson estimates, is about 20 percent African-American.
Whoever succeeds Wilson will have a platform on which to build, just as Wilson did.
Meantime, Wilson said he has “a lot of confidence in Scott’s ability.”