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.