New MDA chief cites potential in energy, medical sectors

New MDA director Brent Christensen is Gov. Phil Bryant's economic developer-in-chief.

Speaking publicly for the first time since taking over as head of the Mississippi Development Authority June 6, Brent Christensen sounded optimistic notes on the state’s prospects in the energy and medical sectors but cautioned strides must be made in preparing Mississippians for 21st century jobs.

In a talk before the Madison County Business League and the Madison County Economic Development Authority last Monday, Christensen voiced appreciation for the warm welcome he has received across the state since arriving from Gainesville, Fla., where he headed a regional chamber of commerce. He joked that his tenure got off to a particularly good start through the good fortune of getting to announce a Nissan jobs expansion of 1,000 workers in which he had no part.

The Tampa, Fla., native and former Hattiesburg economic development professional has kept a low profile in his first two months on the job, though he has put about 4,000 miles of his car traveling the state talking with local and regional economic development specialists, many of whom he worked with two decades ago.

“I’ve put off speaking engagements until I got around the state,” he told the luncheon audience at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Ridgeland.

Now, with his learning tour behind him, Christensen says he is ready to focus on business retention and Gov. Phil Bryant’s two economic development priorities: Increasing the state’s participation in a range of energy initiatives and enhancing the state’s standing as a place for medical-related businesses to call home.

On the energy front, he emphasized the progress underway in turning Mississippi’s bio-fuel resources into dollars and jobs and the innovations Mississippi Power is making in converting cheap goal into a clean burning fuel for the coal-powered plant the utility is building in Kemper County.

Look as well, he said, for the state to begin gaining significant economic opportunities from marine shale in Southwest Mississippi. Energy experts say the Tuscaloosa Marine shale formation, which covers 2.7 million acres across central Louisiana and southwest Mississippi, could emerge as the next big shale oil play.

“We have the technology in place to allow producers to secure these resources,” Christensen said.

He said he is enthusiastic about the prospects for an economic boost from legislation enacted this year to grant economic incentives to companies that set up medical-related businesses in designated zones around the state. “I look forward to announcing many of these in the near future,” Christensen said, citing the prospects for creating high-paying jobs in medical services, medical equipment, pharmaceutical operations and diagnostic centers.

The success of the new economic development initiatives will ultimately hinge on the quality of the state’s workforce, he predicted, noting that in years past companies focused on incentives for setting up shop in a locality but today the supply of quality workers is the main concern.

“Now, the first thing out of their mouths is: ‘Am I going to have”’ a teachable workforce “‘that starts at my business on day one?’”

Christensen cited such workforce development programs as the one initiated at Holmes Community College and the new workforce centers opened by the state.

But what the state has done so far, “Simply is not good enough,” he said. “Right now we don’t have that workforce development system that delivers consistency across the board.”

Competition today demands that consistency and quality be achieved, according to Christensen.

“We are competing on a world stage now.”

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