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New councilman Whitwell talks arena, local option sales tax and city budget

February 16th, 2011 No comments

Quentin Whitwell won Tuesday’s special election to represent Jackson’s Ward 1 on the City Council, after former councilman Jeff Weill was elected last fall to the Hinds County Circuit Court bench.

Magnolia Marketplace had a phone conversation with Whitwell Wednesday morning, just before he headed to City Hall to polish up some paperwork in advance of his swearing-in on Thursday.

We talked about the downtown arena and the local option sales tax legislation Jackson leaders are attempting to push through the Legislature. Here’s what he told us:

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. essentially took over the arena project late last year from the private entities that had been pursuing it for a couple years.

The city’s action was not met with much enthusiasm from the private sector. Johnson responded to that by saying that the private sector would have to be involved if a downtown arena were to become a reality.

Whitwell acknowledged that there is an inherent mistrust between Johnson and Jackson’s business community that was developed over Johnson’s first two terms.

“That’s something we have to get over,” Whitwell said. “I definitely believe this is an opportunity for the business community and the city to actually get things done. Whether we agree with the mayor every time or not, he is the mayor. I think it’s a positive, not a negative.”

The bill that would allow Jackson voters to decide via referendum if they would accept a 1 percent sales tax whose revenue would fund water and street infrastructure repair and maintenance has cleared the Senate and sits in the House Ways and Means Committee. As the bill reads now, hotels and restaurants, to go with retail food sales and cable and satellite TV service providers’ income, would be exempt from the additional tax.

“My fiscal conservative nature tells me that we are looking at a $300 million budget that is bloated,” Whitwell said. “There are a lot of things that can be cut. I’m not one of those people looking for more dollars in general.

“Having said that, I have been a vocal supporter of the optional sales tax for seven or eight years, going back to working with (Ridgeland) Mayor Gene McGee when he was president of the Mississippi Municipal League.

“I believe that the optional sales tax is a good measure because, No. 1, it’s ‘optional,’ and No. 2, the local government knows best what projects will make it successful,” Whitwell continued. ”If Jackson is successful at passing this bill, I think it could be very good and it could free up additional monies (should 60 percent of voters approve it). But I’m going to be a watchdog over the taxpayer money. We already have a pretty high tax system and I think we need to be finding areas to be lowering taxes to start drawing people back into the city.”

When we asked Whitwell for specific things he thinks could or should be trimmed from the city’s budget, he mentioned the overhead associated with administrative departments and their staff, whose hiring process he called “the friends and family plan. I think that needs to be examined and cut significantly.”

““In 1990, our budget was $100 million,” he said. “It was projected then that our budget 20 years later would be $200 million. Since then, we’ve lost enough citizens to fill the city of Vicksburg, about 35,000 people. Yet our budget has increased an additional 50 percent of what was projected. What that tells me is that we’re spending more money than we really should spend.”

Barbour looks back, ahead in speech to MEDC

February 3rd, 2011 No comments

Economic development is a marathon. It’s not a sprint.

That was the general theme of Gov. Haley Barbour’s speech at the Mississippi Economic Development Council’s Winter Meeting Thursday morning at the Hilton in Jackson.

No better illustration of that concept exists, Barbour said, than the process that led to Toyota’s decision to build in Blue Springs.

In the summer of 2004, a few months after Barbour started his first term, he went to the annual Mississippi Picnic in the Park in New York City’s Central Park. While he was there, Barbour ran into a few Toyota executives. Toyota had not made it known that they intended to build a new facility in North America, but Barbour chatted up Mississippi anyway.

“We worked with Toyota on tort reform, and on a lot of things that had nothing at all to do with Toyota,” Barbour told the several hundred gathered in one of the Hilton’s ballrooms.

And when Toyota started the competitive process to select a new site, “we were in a good position to compete because we had started the marathon,” Barbour said.

This was the eighth and final time Barbour would address the MEDC’s Winter Meeting, at least as governor. He did a lot of reflecting, recounting the horror of Katrina and the early stages of economic and physical recovery. He implored the economic developers in attendance to have a plan in place for every conceivable disaster, natural or otherwise.

And speaking of Katrina, Barbour said Mississippi stood its best chance of emerging from the recession at the front of the pack because of the acclaim Mississippi earned for the way we handled ourselves in the wake of the hurricane.

“CEOs told me then and they tell me now that we have an awful lot to be proud of,” Barbour said.

The speech was not without a small amount of political posturing. Barbour said he was writing a letter today to lawmakers, urging them to refrain from spending all of the state’s Rainy Day Fund for fiscal year 2012, whose budget-crafting process, to go with redistricting, will be the biggest issue of the legislative session. Depleting the cash reserves would increase Mississippi’s chances of landing another Toyota or Nissan, because it would give those companies assurance that “their taxes aren’t going to be increased,” Barbour said. “And that’s music to their ears.”

 

Viking Classic economic impact numbers have arrived

January 27th, 2011 No comments

Thursday morning, Magnolia Marketplace got some numbers we’ve been waiting on for several weeks.

A study commissioned by the Mississippi Development Authority and conducted by Mississippi State’s College of Business and its Extension Service took a look at the economic impact of the PGA Tour’s Viking Classic, played every year at Annandale Golf Club in Madison.

Surveyors asked 2,500 attendees at last fall’s Viking how much money they spent on things like food, gas, hotel rooms, how much money they spent at the course on memorabilia, etc.

Here’s what they found:

The total economic impact of the tournament is $22 million. That includes a value added total of $12.5 million, which reflects things like return in rents, wages, interest and profits, according to a press release from MSU. That economic activity created 362 jobs, including 280 direct jobs and 77 indirect jobs.

“It’s a significant amount,” said Dr. Becky Smith, an economist for the College of Business who coordinated the project with Garen Evans and Al Myles, MSU Extension economists in the agricultural economics department.

The total estimated impact on labor income came in at $7.2 million, including $4.9 million worth of income directly attributable to the event, and an another $2.3 million from indirect and induced impacts. Estimated sales taxes collected from Viking-related spending was $1.5 million.

Before this latest study, the last economic impact analysis of the Viking Classic came in the mid-1990s and pegged it at $20 million. It’s no surprise at all that the new numbers came in over that.

These figures will be a part of the sales pitch for tournament organizers when it comes time to sit down with Viking Range to start renewal negotiations. Viking’s title sponsorship contract expires after this year’s tournament, which will be played in July instead of September.

The MDA paid MSU $30,000 to conduct the study. Surveys were taken by undergraduate students at MSU’s College of Business and were gathered during the three-day run-up to the tournament and during the four days of play.

Why isn’t Cawood consulting our community colleges?

January 5th, 2011 No comments

Remember Mississippi Beef Processors? A handful of Mississippi politicians certainly do.

Before Dickie Scruggs, his son and associates found themselves in federal prosecutors’ crosshairs, the rise and fall of the beef plant that cost Mississippi taxpayers $55 million and 400 jobs was the biggest political scandal in quite some time here.

Anyway, one of the executives of The Facilities Group, a Smyrna, Ga., company that managed the construction of the plant, was turned loose yesterday from his court-ordered supervision by a federal judge in North Mississippi.

Nixon Cawood was one of three Facilities Group executives who received modest prison terms for their roles in orchestrating illegal campaign contributions to former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who they were depending on to save the deal from death once it became clear to agriculture experts that there was no market for cull cattle, or not enough of one to support the plant in Oakland.

Robert Moultrie and Charles Morehead, Cawood’s colleagues, have been released from prison within the past year, according to federal prison records.

Cawood’s appearance before District Judge Michael Mills yesterday was a lot more pleasant than his first encounter with Mills exactly two years ago. Before Mills sentenced Cawood to eight months in prison, Cawood’s attorney asked for leniency for his client, which is what attorneys are supposed to do in those situations. What made Cawood’s plea interesting, though, is that his idea of leniency included serving as a consultant to Mississippi’s community college system. It was his way of performing community service, his attorney said then.

Mills, naturally, almost laughed Cawood and his counsel out of his courtroom. Since then, Cawood has served his time and paid his fines, so the only mark he has left from the whole ordeal is a felony conviction.

Cawood apparently has since gotten a job managing a real estate firm in Georgia. Guess the consulting gig didn’t work out. Reckon why that is?

Barbour to reveal economic development deal tomorrow?

January 3rd, 2011 No comments

It’s the first work day of the new year, and Magnolia Marketplace thought we might be able to catch Dan Turner off his guard.

We didn’t.

Reports have surfaced this afternoon that Gov. Haley Barbour will announce an economic development project Tuesday morning. So will he?

“You know we don’t comment on any economic development deal until it’s officially announced,” Turner said.

In the past month or so, we’ve heard rumors of a deal for Hattiesburg, Tupelo and all points in between, but there’s been nobody willing to put their name on it. Maybe Barbour will fill in some gaps tomorrow.

So stay tuned.

Hyde-Smith’s defection a step toward run for ag commish?

December 28th, 2010 No comments

New Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven cemented her status as one of Magnolia Marketplace’s favorite legislators in the 2009 session.

It was during the Senate’s debate before the vote on whether to override or sustain Gov. Haley Barbour’s veto of a bill that would have restricted the use of eminent domain for projects of direct public use, like roads and bridges, and eliminated it as a tool for private economic development.

As we all know, Barbour’s veto was sustained. Hyde-Smith voted to override it, but not before she gave one of the best floor speeches we’ve ever heard. The highlight of her diatribe was a warning to her fellow lawmakers. Hyde-Smith said her colleagues who voted to sustain Barbour’s veto “had better have asbestos underwear because somebody’s going to light your rear-end on fire when you get back home.” The rest of the day, folks called her “the asbestos lady.”

Hyde-Smith was one of three state officials who switched from the Democratic party to the GOP this afternoon, during a ceremony at Republican headquarters in Jackson. Magnolia Marketplace couldn’t make it because we had an appointment with a source we’d been trying to run down for more than a week.

Hyde-Smith joins Rep. Bobby Shows of Ellisville and Simpson County Superintendent of Education Joe Welch in trading a donkey for an elephant.

But it’s Hyde-Smith’s defection that is the most interesting, and here’s why: She’s a cattle farmer when she’s not at the capitol. She chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. The current commissioner of agriculture, Lester Spell, has already said he won’t seek re-election next year.

Even before November’s midterms, Democrats — with few exceptions like Attorney General Jim Hood — haven’t done well in statewide races.

We’ve heard Hyde-Smith’s name brought up in recent casual political conversations about candidates for down-ballot offices in 2011.

We ran this theory by two political types.

“Makes sense,” said one.

“We’ll see,” said the other.

We just left a voicemail on Hyde-Smith’s cell phone. If and when she gets back to us, we’ll let you know what she says.

Nicholas: CottonMill deal to close mid-January

December 20th, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace just wrapped up a phone conversation with Mark Nicholas, whose Ridgeland-based Nicholas Properties is one of the developers of CottonMill Marketplace, the giant mixed-use project in Starkville.

We played phone tag with Nicholas last week when we were trying to run him down for the CottonMill update we had in this week’s MBJ. We caught him this morning as he was driving to Starkville.

Here’s what Nicholas told us:

He expects to close on the financing on or close to Jan. 15. Construction would begin almost immediately afterward.

“It’s going to happen,” said Nicholas, who’s been working on CottonMill for more than three years. “Nothing about this has been easy. The combination of funding we’ll use — bonds, grants, tax credits, TIF — it takes a while to pull all that together. But there’s not much that can stop it now.”

The two phases of the project will total about $120 million. The first phase will include the renovation of the old E.E. Cooley Building into office space and a conference center, a parking deck and the construction of a hotel and a restaurant. The second phase will include student housing and retail space. Nicholas said he expects construction to last about 18 months.

A log cabin on the southeast part of the site that once housed a Burker King will be disassembled. Nicholas said he sold the cabin to Jackson attorney and real estate developer John Arthur Eaves, who has plans to erect the cabin in Oxford, though it’s unclear what it will be once it arrives.

So that’s where we are. We’ll have more updates about this once it gets closer to the second week of January.

Waide will not seek office in 2011 (Updated)

December 6th, 2010 No comments

Today’s a  big day for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. There’s an election to see who will succeed David Waide as president, and there’s the speculation about Waide’s political future.

According to a text message Magnolia Marketplace received this morning from somebody who’s at the election in Jackson, Waide told the crowd there that he will not seek any political office in 2011. Instead, he’s going to concentrate his energy on his farm in West Point.

This isn’t a huge shock, but it is a little bit of a surprise. A lot of people, us included, thought Waide would have been a strong candidate for commissioner of agriculture. Waide also considered running for governor.

Waide would have almost certainly made the issue of eminent domain being employed for private economic development the center of his campaign, had he run. Whoever the new Farm Bureau president is will deal with the push to the ballot initiative that will appear on the 2011 ballot.

We’ll fill in some details as the day goes on, so check back with us periodically.

 

UPDATE: Randy Knight, a dairy farmer from Rankin County, was just elected as the Farm Bureau Federation’s ninth president. Knight defeated Ken Middleton of Washington County and Brad Bean of Amite County. Knight beat Middleton in a run-off.

Anti-Brown forces need to be careful

November 9th, 2010 No comments

On Tuesday, other statewide media picked up the latest Butch Brown story Magnolia Marketplace first reported last Thursday and Friday.

But we’re not here to pat ourselves on the back.

And Brown’s political enemies should be careful not to do the same.

Anybody with a working knowledge of Mississippi politics knows that Brown’s leadership and his missteps will be the major issue in the race to succeed Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor, who died suddenly last week.

Candidates who align themselves with Brown, like Minor did, have lots of things to mention as examples of what has gone right under MDOT’s executive director — the sparkling new bridge in Greenville and the lightning-fast rebuilding of major bridges on the Coast post-Katrina come immediately to mind.

Likewise, those who align with Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, Brown’s biggest political enemy, have plenty of ammunition, too. There was Brown’s arrest for public intoxication at the Beau Rivage in July, and now there’s this latest incident, in which Brown made inappropriate remarks about U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and got an admonishing letter from Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez afterward.

While the anti-Brown camp has plenty of reasons to build a campaign around ousting him, they had better tread lightly.

Brown told Magnolia Marketplace that his cancer is back for the third time since he was initially diagnosed a few years ago. Anybody who’s lost a loved one to cancer knows this is bad news all the way around. If he’s not already there, Brown is on his way to M.D. Anderson cancer treatment center in Houston, Texas.

North Mississippi voters, especially the country folks, won’t stand for somebody beating up on a sick man. Those sensitivities are no doubt heightened in the light of Minor’s untimely death. Politics is nasty enough without Brown having to defend himself from a hospital bed.

There are other issues a candidate could build a campaign around, and he or she should focus on those.

Highway administrator: Brown “offensive, inappropriate”

November 4th, 2010 7 comments

Back in July, Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Butch Brown attended the meeting of an economic development group at the Beau Rivage on a Thursday night, and got arrested early the next morning for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. 

The Beau Rivage, where Brown was arrested, quickly dismissed the disorderly conduct charge. Brown will answer to the public intoxication charge — which was filed by the Biloxi Police Department, after its police report said Brown was combative and uncooperative with officers on the scene — later in November at his trial.

A whole lot of people thought the Beau Rivage dropped the disorderly conduct charge so quickly because Brown is the president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, whose annual meeting was at — you guessed it — the Beau Rivage. More than 1,000 people were scheduled to attend. At the time, a Beau Rivage spokesperson adamantly denied Brown’s position as AASHTO president had anything to do with the dropped charge.

The annual meeting ended Monday. And Brown’s behavior is an issue again.

Early this afternoon, Magnolia Marketplace obtained a letter Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez wrote to Brown and copied several others on. It’s only two sentences long, but it packs quite a punch.

The full text of the letter, which was dated Nov. 3 and addressed to Brown: “Your remarks as a public official were highly offensive, inappropriate and unprofessional. Your behavior was shameful and brings discredit to your department (the Mississippi Department of Transportation), the citizens of the great State of Mississippi and your peers at AASHTO.”

Wow.

Mendez was referring to Brown’s behavior during AASHTO’s Board of Directors dinner, which was listed on the letter’s subject line, on Nov. 1. According to the AASHTO meeting agenda, the dinner took place at the Imperial Palace, was invitation only and started at 6 p.m. Here’s the interesting thing about that: Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor died the morning of Nov. 1. He was attending the AASHTO meeting.

So whatever Brown did that night, hours after his friend and colleague’s sudden death, was deemed so “offensive, inappropriate and unprofessional” by Mendez, he fired off a letter and copied the other two members of the Transportation Commission (Dick Hall and Wayne Brown), AASHTO’s executive director, AASHTO’s incoming president, and the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

We have left a message with Mendez’s assistant, in an effort to find out exactly what Brown did and said. Brown and other MDOT officials are attending Minor’s funeral in North Mississippi this afternoon, so getting any of them on the phone will be impossible. But we’ll start first thing Friday morning.

For a refresher, here’s video of Brown in July discussing his arrest.