Is Barksdale’s lack of economic development a concern?

January 5, 2012

Economic Development

There were many names in the rumor mill as possible candidates for the next executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. Jim Barksdale was not one of them.

However, Gov.-elect Phil Bryant yesterday announced Barksdale as his choice as interim MDA director. Barksdale would succeed Leland Speed, who has also been serving in an interim basis at MDA.

Like Speed, Barksdale, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, has no prior economic development experience. Should this be of concern? Recent history says maybe — maybe not.

In 2000, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove named J.C. Burns as director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, now MDA. Burns did play a lead role in establishing the economic development organization Panola Partnership in Batesville, but was a career banker with no hard economic development background.

This raised a few eyebrows, especially since Burns was replacing Jimmy Heidel, one of Mississippi’s most prominent and veteran economic developers who served on Gov. Kirk Fordice.

It would be a short tenure for Burns. In October 2001, Musgrove fired Burns, saying it was “important for the citizens and business community of the state to have full confidence in our economic development efforts.” Musgrove never offered any specifics on why Burns was terminated.

With that, Musgrove went the opposite direction and hired Florida economic developer Bob Rohrlack. Though an outsider, Rohrlack is a University of Southern Mississippi graduate and had great credentials.

But, he only lasted 18 months. Again, speculation abounded as to Rohrlack’s demise, and Musgrove only offered the curious “he did a fantastic job” statement.

Steve Hale, former Senatobia mayor who had no hard economic development experience, filled out the term under Musgrove.

When Haley Barbour assumed the Governor’s Mansion, he chose a “hybrid” strategy for filling the leadership at MDA. Barbour named Speed, a real estate executive, as head of the agency, but placed other seasoned economic developers in key positions, including Gray Swoope. Swoope had worked his way up the economic development ladder, leading the politically charged Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg before coming to MDA.

Some expressed disappointment that Swoope was not named executive director, but Swoope himself always praised Speed’s role in getting the MDA on its feet after the tumultuous Musgrove term.

Speed, who refused to be paid for his services at MDA, eventually passed the gavel to Swoope, who generally received high marks for his MDA work.

In March of last year, Swoope was named head of Enterprise Florida, the Sunshine State’s economic development arm. (Ironically, Swoope told the MBJ that Rohrlack, who is still in Florida, proved a great help in his transition from MDA to Enterprise Florida.)

Speculation ran rampant as to whom Barbour might choose to replace Swoope, and a number of names were bantered about, including Heidel and Hale. In the end, Barbour went back to Speed.

So, what was learned? It would seem a strong economic development background is no guarantee of success as leader of the MDA. Rather, politics has played a bigger hand in determining whether the MDA leader is successful or not.

Here’s hoping Barksdale makes more friends than enemies — for his sake and the state’s.

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