HARDWICK: Economic growth in Mississippi: It’s past, present and future

Economic development, which is generally defined as the process of creating wealth in a community, continues to evolve. In this column we will discuss a bit of Mississippi economic development history, where it stands now and what the future might hold.

PAST — The genesis of Mississippi’s formal economic development effort as we know it today can be traced to the 1930’s when industrialist and mayor of Columbia Hugh L. White convinced Reliance Manufacturing Company to open a facility in Marion County by offering incentives to do so. The project was so successful that White made industrial recruitment a campaign theme in his successful run for governor in 1935. His campaign theme was to “Balance Agriculture with Industry.” After assuming office he established a state agency to recruit nationally for industrial prospects and to offer incentives as necessary. Among his successful industrial recruitment efforts was Ingalls Shipbuilding to Pascagoula.

PRESENT — The name changes of the state’s lead economic development agency over the years reflect the transformation of the evolution of economic development in the state. From the Mississippi Industrial Commission to Mississippi Agricultural and Industrial (A&I) Board to Mississippi Department of Economic Development to Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development to the current Mississippi Development Authority, the agency’s name illustrates the ever-changing aspects of economic development. The sole focus on industrial recruitment has evolved into a wide range of activities that not only increase the wealth of communities, but serve to improve the quality of life, as well. Community development has been added to the mix of services and activities provided by the state’s lead economic development agency

Local agencies have also changed from their original missions of simply recruiting industry. Many are now what is known as “umbrella” organizations, meaning that local economic and community development activities are under the purview of a controlling or lead organization. Activities such as chamber of commerce, tourism, convention and visitors bureau and community development may have their own employees or even boards, but are aligned under the purview or control of a lead organization. Examples include The Alliance in Corinth, the Area Development Partnership (ADP) in Hattiesburg, the Community Development Foundation (CDF) in Tupelo and the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation (EMBDC) in Meridian. Regional economic development is on the rise. For example, the Golden Triangle Development LINK provides economic development services to several counties.

For the most part, local economic and community development organizations are public/private entities, although a number of counties and municipalities have their own organizations or agencies that are part of the local government. Several cities have community development agencies that function as housing, zoning, planning and economic development organizations.

A glance at the membership roster of the Mississippi Economic Development Council (MEDC), the association of economic development and chamber of commerce professionals, reveals that its members represent the full gamut of economic and community development activities.

FUTURE — Up to now, economic development has been very place-based and jobs-based. It has been about improving a place through creation, attraction or retention of jobs or improving the quality of life of the community through various activities. When considering the nature of work, technology and the demographics of America it appears that economic development as we know it is in for another round of modification.

In a recent column titled “It’s a 401(k) World,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman addressed this subject in a very thought-provoking piece. He said that in the last decade we have gone from a connected to a hyper-connected world, and that “…What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online.” It also means that more is placed on the individual worker.

Note that he said that individuals may engage in commerce, invent and invest. Technology, in other words, may be changing everything. Perhaps not to the extent that large employers or manufacturers or big companies are going to go away. Yet change will come to the way we approach economic and community development. There may not be as many big companies to support the current model of community activities. Consider Kodak, which employed 140,000 people in its heyday, and its social impact on Rochester, N.Y. Now consider Instagram when it was purchased by Facebook in April 2012. It had 13 employees. Check out “How Silicon Valley is Hollowing Out the Economy (And Stealing From You To Boot),” at the Time Magazine website on ways that technology is disrupting business models.

This does not mean that economic and community development will go away, of course. It means that it will just be different.

We are also entering an era when education is converging with economic development and community development activities. No longer does the business community sit back and trust that the schools will deliver trainable workers. Instead, businesses, through economic and community development organizations, are getting more involved in local schools.

A glimpse of the future can be found in whom economic development organizations are recruiting these days. Although large employers are still a target, there is increasing emphasis on recruiting people as well as jobs; i.e., tourism, retirement communities, lifestyle destinations, etc. Health care will also be a growing focus of economic and community development activities.

No matter what the future holds, there will always be economic development organizations finding ways to increase the wealth of their communities and improve the quality of life.

» Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.

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