By TED CARTER
Mississippi’s government leaders and economic development officials started this decade devoted to making innovation-based, or new economy, startup companies a bigger part of the state’s economic engine.
How much they’ve actually contributed as the second decade of the 21st century nears its close depends on who is doing the talking.
The assessment of Mississippi Development Authority’s executive director Glenn McCullough Jr.: He and other state officials are helping to put the parts in place for a Magnolia State creative economy that can drive itself forward.
“There has been significant progress in the development of an entrepreneurship and innovative ecosystem,” McCullough said in an email.
Malcolm White, however, thinks the MDA and other state officials have mostly been missing in action in recent years.
The current head of the Mississippi Arts Commission and former chief of the MDA’s defunct creative economy bureau says he doesn’t know what sort of helping hand the state will be giving the innovation-and-knowledge sector at decade’s end. But the help it is giving today falls short, says White, who created the creative economy bureau during a two-year stint as the state’s tourism director, a post within the MDA.
White said the embrace state leaders once gave the idea of an innovation sector was real enough. But they’ve since stuck to putting their bets on the big, headline-grabbing manufacturing plants at the exclusion of new economy startups and the cumulative and sometimes viral job growth they offer, White said.
White traces the waning of enthusiasm to the 2015 departure of Brent Christensen as executive director of the MDA. Christensen’s tenure lasted only three years but during that period he put state support behind growing a creative economy sector, said White, who started the decade in the same post he now holds.
As head of the Arts Commission in 2011, White joined with the MDA to produce a blueprint for fostering a knowledge-based economic sector. He took that body of work with him, he said, when he joined the MDA as director of tourism in 2013.
“Brent Christensen was very interested in that work and felt like it would be a good fit for the MDA,” White said.
Soon after, much of the work the Arts Commission was doing on the innovation economy shifted to the MDA, where the creative economy bureau was established within the tourism department, according to White.
Soon after Christensen’s 2015 departure for a North Carolina job and the arrival of McCullough, White returned to head the Arts Commission. The economic development agency soon scrapped the creative economy bureau. “The MDA did not feel like it was a good fit,” White said.
Today, he said he sees lots of private investors and private sector enterprises fostering innovative startups across Mississippi, but “I don’t see any government effort” to help out.
“I think that is where we have failed to take the next step,” White added. “We will drop many millions to rescue manufacturing. But they have yet to get to a place where they will incentivize creative communities.”
Oxford’s Bill Rayburn, a former Ole Miss finance professor and one of the state’s most successful startup entrepreneurs, says Mississippi’s focus on creating manufacturing jobs “is good but shortsighted.”
Such jobs go away over time, become automated or leave to go to low-cost labor areas, said Rayburn.
Innovation jobs, on the other hand, create other jobs, added Rayburn, who started tech firm Mortgage Trade after the $475 million sale in 2016 of FNC, a mortgage technology company he co-founded.
“The state needs to focus on creating innovation jobs,” he added , but emphasized he noted he is not “excited” about the prospect of the state engineering tax policy to make that happen.
White, meanwhile, said more support in the way of incentives from state economic development policy makers could help to create organic growth beyond the approximately 3.5 percent portion of the Mississippi economy knowledge-based businesses now occupy. He put the number of jobs in the innovation sector at about 65,000, a figure he says could grow significantly with the right kind of support.
“It has never been encouraged or lifted up by state government,” White argued.
McCullough thinks otherwise. “We have a strong focus on tech development, which involves our four research universities, military labs and other government agencies such as the Delta Regional Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission,” the MDA chief said in his email.
“We also work closely with small business development centers and the innovative community as a whole.”
McCullough further noted the MDA’s work on the creative economy has included a significant investment of time and effort in Mississippi’s educational system. The MDA, he said, has assisted “our community colleges in developing an associate’s degree focused on entrepreneurship. Additionally, we have developed enterprise-based coding academies in conjunction with the Community College Board and Innovate Mississippi.”
What’s more, the MDA is working with the Community College Board to complete the curriculum for an associate’s degree in computer coding, McCullough said.
Back at his former post with the Arts Commission, a state agency with an annual budget of about $3 million, White says he has not let up in pursuing progress for a creative economy sector. He said he is leading the Arts Commission into “creative asset mapping” to assist innovative startups in engaging a community’s creative assets and cultural resources. This is achieved through working with conventional economic developers and private investors, he said.
“But,” White added, “a little bit of incentive will go a long way.”
The innovation economy had a period in the spotlight when Gov. Phil Bryant declared 2014 “the year of the creative economy.” That year also included a huge turnout for an MDA-sponsored daylong seminar on the creative economy at the Jackson Convention Complex. “We were full steam ahead at that point,” White recalls.
“At some point we are going to get leadership that says if this works on Toyota and Nissan, let’s try it on creative enterprises.”
There can be an alternative to chasing smokestacks, he said, and added:
“This is not your father’s economic development.”
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