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Snake-oil salesmen make a killing in the name of economic development

December 1st, 2011 3 comments

Most every little town in Mississippi — from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico — has an economic development arm.

Presidents of growth alliances, economic development associations, or whatever each town prefers to call its version, routinely make anywhere from $60,000 to more than $100,000 to lure big business to small-town Mississippi. We are talking about paying that kind of money in towns with populations ranging from 9,000 to around 20,000.

In many cases, the economic development expert has left one small town for another, hoping to accomplish in the latter what he or she failed to accomplish in the former.

It’s not necessary for these towns to pay that kind of money for an “Economic Development President” to travel, eat nice meals and make phone calls when — in most cases — the only thing the town gets in return is a fatter, more well-traveled “Economic Development President.”

While some may argue that now — in this economic climate — is the absolute best time to hire aggressive economic developers, this really is the worst time to waste money when other more productive and important departments — like fire and police services or education — are being cut to the bone or cut out all-together.

We scream about wasteful government spending on the national level. Yet, when there is duplicitous spending on the local level, we find ways to rationalize the process. There is no reason to have small-town economic developers when, just up the road, there is generally an economic development agency that serves the entire region — such as the statewide Mississippi Development Authority.

There have been calls at the national level of getting rid of large-scale economic development agencies, such as — although not specifically mentioned — the MDA.

In an op-ed to The Wall Street Journal in June, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a Tea Party stalwart dedicated to reducing the size of the government, called for the elimination of the Economic Development Administration. He says the EDA’s efforts duplicate existing federal programs.

While I am certain there is much fat to be trimmed, the MDA’s overall work is needed to facilitate economic progress.

Towns need to think about consolidating, using existing services and working regionally. The best example of regionalism at work in the last 50 years in Mississippi is in Northeast Mississippi, where companies have located in and around Tupelo with little selfish pushback in individual communities.

Toyota recognized that, and placed its new production facility near the interstate-like U.S. 78 and U.S. 45 intersection as people from as far away as Corinth, Columbus, Oxford and across the state line in Alabama will drive to Blue Springs to work.

The bottom line is that in small towns around the state, essential services like police, fire, education and infrastructure repairs are being slashed or eliminated in the name of fiscal responsibility. In the mean time, as much as $100,000 is being handed out to the president of an economic development organization who is making claims of working hard on the next big thing — when the only thing of significance that might be getting done is making sure the local farmers market has a clean working area for the spring and summer months.

Loyal customers, even those running, are the easiest to catch

December 3rd, 2010 Comments off

Somewhere after Eschman Avenue turned into Waverly Road in Clay County a couple of weeks ago, I forgot that my actual goal was to log 20 miles of running at one time.

Normally, my Saturday runs are organized with dozens of fellow runners along the trails and through the streets of Ridgeland and Madison.

Yet, this Thanksgiving weekend, the peaceful surroundings of rolling hills, lakes and farmland made the training run like a Sunday afternoon drive.

Only near the end did I realize there was real effort involved in finishing this adventure.

All of this is part of the larger scheme of running in the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson on Jan. 8.
I have always been a big fan of running and admired the ability of true professional runners. I have even done a little running from time to time during the years, hitting the occasional local 5K and 10K along the way.
However, my running exploits never lasted long enough to become a locked-in part of my life. I talked a good game to my wife and anyone else who would listen – if I run this way or that way, etc., I can lose weight – blah, blah, blah.

I talked so much that my wife even told me to either start running or shut up.

Finally in May, I began to jog a little to see if I was prepared to back up what I had been talked about for years and years.

And somewhere along the way, I guess like my run through Clay County on Thanksgiving weekend, I forgot this marathon thing was supposed to be hard work. It had become fun, actually enjoyable and relaxing, even when it was cold or raining or when my lungs screamed at me because we had run a little further and farther than we had before.

The hardest part became scheduling around work and family and friends and the everyday duties of life.
One of the things that has made the process easier has been the training program provided by Fleet Feet of Ridgeland.

Its “Running 201″ is a 25-week program designed to help you complete a marathon or half-marathon or improve on performance from previous races.

The design is to get anyone who wants to through 13.1 or 26.2 miles at the Mississippi Blues Marathon, and the program includes lots of nifty perks, like special shopping nights, gear and registration in the race.
There’s a support team of store staff as well as former participants in the program that help get you safely through two group runs a week. Even after the runs, there is always someone willing to provide advice or suggestions if you need it the rest of the week, when the runs are usually on your own.

The concept, obviously, is not new. However, the Fleet Feet crew does a great job and over the years, the process has helped build a significant running community in Jackson and even throughout the state.
What Fleet Feet has also done is put together a pretty good business model.

Sure, when I have needed help to get moving, there has been someone to provide a pat on the back or a kick in the rear.

When I needed to know if that pain in my knee should be cause for alarm, there was a responsible person there for an answer or a suggestion of where to go for a better answer.

And when I needed to change clothes from work before taking off on a run along the Ridgeland trails, there was a dressing room waiting for me.

But there is also lots of running and fitness gear to be bought, and Fleet Feet has done a great job of providing a service as well as a need for runners and walkers in the area.

If you participate in one of the many training programs and get to know the staff, it becomes difficult to buy shoes or socks or shirts anywhere. There’s a loyalty factor that is built in to the help provided for prospective runners.

None of this is a negative.

It’s proof positive that if you provide a worthy product along with good service and back it up with friendly advice and an inviting environment, customers are more likely to grow attached and want to spend their money there.

These training programs should serve as a model to other businesses, particularly small, locally-owned business.
Provide a quality product, back it up with service and become an integral part of the community you hope to sell to and there is success to be had, even in a down economy.
This year, more than 160 are part of the “Running 201″ program. That’s 160 more committed customers getting ready to participate in a community event.
How many more Fleet Feet training alumni will be running in the Mississippi Blues Marathon? The number is probably more than 1,000.

As for me, I will see you at the finish line.

Contact Mississippi Business Journal editor Ross Reily at ross.reily@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.