Perceptions changing as major players come calling

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Published: June 4,2007

Mississippi’s efforts to improve the state’s image are paying off as evidenced by big new economic development projects and, by the same token, the announcement of the projects is polishing the image even more.

From the outside looking in, Mark Arend, editor of Site Selection magazine, said Mississippi is more growth oriented and more competitive than in the past.

“The people in the economic development community there are working hard, and it’s paying off,” he said. “The areas seem to understand that approaching it through regionalism is the way to do it. The certified mega sites are very important, too, because most of the work to prepare the site has been done for industry coming in.”

Mike Randle, editor of Southern Business & Development magazine, said the state’s latest successes have come about through years of hard work.

“Economic development is not something you turn on and off. It’s something you do every day,” he said. “Gov. Barbour, David Rumbarger, Gray Swoope and others are doing a good job. Mississippi has a lot of talented, aggressive economic developers in the state, and it has a lot to do with relationships. It’s not always about numbers.”

Randle also believes the state’s closeness to the center of the Southern Automotive Corridor in Alabama is making Mississippi more inviting for industry.

Dr. Kirk Schulz, vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University (MSU), said the state’s image is improving a great deal, nationally and regionally, as significant companies move in.

“That causes other folks to look at Mississippi and learn more about the state,” he said. “There’s a negative perception from the 1960s. However, that’s changing as companies bring in lots of people and we get larger numbers of people cycling through.”

Even if visiting companies do not locate in Mississippi, they carry positive images away with them, Schulz said. He believes different state groups have come together to promote economic development more effectively.

“The governor, higher education and community colleges, local and state economic development professionals and the Legislature are operating as a team,” he said. “It’s my perception that the in-fighting of a few years ago caused us to miss out, and they are now keeping it behind closed doors.”

At MSU, Schulz oversees research and coordinates economic development efforts that often spin off industries for the area. His department will be involved with $175 million in external research next year, an all-time record for the university.

“Research and economic development are tied together,” he said, “and we also do a lot of showcasing for companies needing help to learn more about the state.”

Chipping away

Angie Godwin, executive director of the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg, said the negative stereotypical image of the state is being chiseled away by persistence, hard work and professionalism.

“The way our state is performing, the way we acted after Katrina and other ways are changing our image,” she said. “When we can get people to Mississippi, it changes the dynamic.”

She feels companies like Bearing Point, a globally-recognized company that is locating in Hattiesburg, do a lot to build the state’s image.

David Rumbarger of Tupelo agreed that big names like Toyota, Nissan, SeverCorr and others coming into Mississippi can’t help but change the state’s image.

“We’ve been working hard for years on our image,” he said. “I’ve been in three national meetings since the Toyota announcement and people are somewhat shocked. ‘Why Mississippi?’ they ask. That gives us a great opportunity to tell about the things we have here.”

He thinks a lot of people will be trying to find out more about the new Mississippi as a result of recent successes. “Mississippi is taking its rightful place among states,” he said.

John Lovorn, a fifth-generation Mississippian who left Chicago to come home and start The PACE Group, said the state’s image has improved greatly over the past 10 years. His company recruits CEOs and other professionals for positions in Mississippi, and was recently responsible for securing a new vice president of medical affairs for Memorial Hospital at Gulfport.

“Nissan, Toyota, the people of Mississippi and around the U.S. that came to help after Hurricane Katrina, the love, respect and caring of so many people … there are too many things to mention,” he said. “Our firm completed CEO searches in 41 states, and we heard from people all over the U.S.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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