Education at top of Madison Co. economic growth strategy

madison-sign_web1The City of Madison’s objections to Jackson State University’s plan to open a satellite campus in the city comes just as Madison County has wrapped up work on a strategic plan that puts cultivating an educated workforce atop the county’s priorities.

In a counter to Madison’s position, the county’s Board of Supervisors last Monday night unanimously passed a resolution supporting Jackson State’s branch campus plans. The supervisors noted the JSU branch fits into the county’s recently adopted strategic plan for economic growth.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler says the timing is all wrong for Jackson State to open a campus off Intertstate 55 in the Sorrento Two complex in the fall. She worries the new campus could hamper Tulane University’s efforts to establish itself in the community after arriving less than two years ago.

Meanwhile, Madison County’s Economic Development Strategic Plan identifies educational opportunities as key to developing the strong workforce the county must have to achieve sustained economic prosperity.

The talent of the workforce is critical to participation in the global knowledge-based economy, said the plan drafted by New Orleans strategic planning firm Taimerica Management. “A key component of that talent is educational achievement, which beings with pre-kindergarten and ends with an adult continuous education and training.”

Homegrown talent is the best sell for economic development, rather than trying to import it, Taimerica’s draft says.

“New and expanding companies are drawn to pools of quality talent more than trying to attract talent to their operations. For that reason, a sustainable local economy and quality of life must focus on continually improving the educational base.”

While the strategic plan prepared for the Madison County Board of Supervisors and the Madison County Foundation does not specifically call for establishment of new colleges in the county, the plan does propose development of an incentive fund to provide full scholarships for associate level degrees at Holmes Community College.

Tim Coursey, executive director of the Madison County Economic Development Authority, said from an economic standpoint “we need as much higher education as we can get. Our strategic plan says we need that. We need an engineering college here. We need an entity to graduate software programmers.”

With Tulane’s arrival and its work with Holmes Community College, Madison County is beginning to “build that critical mass” it needs on the higher education front, he said.

While he declined to term Jackson State’s plans a “boon” to Madison County, Coursey emphasized that “anytime you have higher education in your community it brings good things.”

Coursey said, however, he understands Hawkins-Butler’s concern that the new campus could put Tulane University at risk of not achieving its goals in Madison.

“I think that the concern Madison had was not so much Jackson State coming here as the timing of it,” Coursey said. “Tulane just got here a year and a half ago and they are trying to establish a foothold.”

Coursey speculated that competition between the two could potentially hurt both institutions of higher learning.

But the desire of both to set up shop in Madison County reflects well on its potential to create an educated workforce, he said.

“You’re darn right it does,” he noted.

Jackson State is surprised but unfazed by the resistance it’s getting from Hawkins-Butler, said JSU spokesman Eric Stringfellow.

“All of this attention has caught us all by surprise. We didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” he said.

Hawkins-Butler was unavailable for interviews last week and early this week.

She said in other media interviews that she was blindsided by the speed at which Jackson State moved to set up the campus after discussing it with her. Stringfellow said, however, that the mayor had no objections when the university briefed her. “That’s why this is kind of surprising to us,” he said of the flap that has ensued.

“We thought this was a no-brainer” considering “how scarce opportunities for education are in this state.”

The university won College Board approval last month for a 10-year, $1.5-million lease for the branch campus.

Stringfellow insisted the university has fully complied with state procedures for opening a branch campus.

He said the satellite campus will offer full four-year degrees but will cater to “non-traditional” students age 25 and over who will attend class on evenings and weekends. “We’re just giving people an opportunity to expand their education,” Stringfellow added.

Decisions on the curriculum have not yet been made. Nor has JSU decided how many students it can accommodate in the 10,000 square feet of space it is leasing at Sorrento Two, an office property off Interstate-55 on the northern end of Madison, Stringfellow said.

Classes are expected to begin sometime in the fall, he added.

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