Gill remembered for rural advocacy, kind demeanor

October 19th, 2012 No comments

Among his many passions, there were two of Joel Gill’s that surfaced more often than the others – his love of Mississippi’s rural communities and his desire to help Mississippi cattlemen.

Gill, the Pickens mayor who ran as a Democrat for Congress in 2008 and for agriculture commissioner last year, was killed in a car wreck Thursday evening in Holmes County. Details of the wreck were not available from the Mississippi Highway Patrol Friday morning, but Jackson television station WAPT reported that Gill hit a tree on Highway 17.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said Gill was one of the few politicians running for an office that covered a large district (or in the case of ag commissioner, the entire state) who made it a point to visit as many rural communities as he could, and not concentrate on the larger voter clusters.

“One of the things that he always talked about was how small, little rural communities get forgotten about,” Presley said.

Presley said he ran into Gill last year at the volunteer fire department in Cardsville, a tiny spot on the map in Itawamba County. Gill was there asking for votes as part of his run against current ag commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith, who ended up winning handily.

“You have to admire somebody who would take on running for a statewide office and just get in his vehicle and go out and ask for votes, knowing full well he was up against a wall of money and a wall of advertisements,” Presley said. “He believed doing that was just important as putting an advertisement on TV.

“And what a fine fellow,” Presley continued. “He was a man that was in it for all the right reasons. It wasn’t about Joel Gill, it was about the public. What a great credit for being staunch in his beliefs, but not being offensive about it. He was firm in what he believed was right, but he never tried to hurt anybody with it. Never shied away from being a Democrat, never shied away from being a rural advocate, but he was never in your face. All of us, Brandon Presley included, could learn from that. He was a gentle, kind, Christian man.”

Politics wasn’t all Gill did. He and his brother started running the family cattle business, Mississippi Order Buyers Inc., in the late 1970s. Gill served on the Mississippi Beef Council and was president of the Mississippi Livestock Markets Association.

One of his pet issues was the country of origin labeling law that requires retailers to provide county-of-origin labeling on fresh beef, pork and lamb.

“He worked long and hard on that,” said Sammy Blossom, executive director of the Mississippi Beef Council.

Blossom said Gill almost never missed a meeting of the Beef Council in his 20 years of service to the organization.

“He was so passionate about his beliefs and his philosophy,” Blossom said.

Gill is survived by his wife, two children and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements had not been finalized Friday morning.

Freedom Trail marker to be presented Thursday at Jackson State

October 17th, 2012 No comments

The fourth Mississippi Freedom Trail marker will be unveiled Thursday morning on the campus of Jackson State University.

The marker will commemorate the student protests at what was then known as Jackson State College in 1970. On May 14, students had gathered on Lynch Street to protest the American invasion of Cambodia that was part of the Vietnam War.

Protesters set fires, threw rocks at motorists and overturned vehicles. Two students were killed by law enforcement gunfire while city and state police attempted to control the crowd while firefighters tried to extinguish the blazes.

Exactly what provoked police to open fire is still a mystery. Police reported seeing a sniper firing from a nearby roof, though a subsequent FBI investigation turned up no evidence of that. Students claimed they did nothing to warrant having weapons turned on them.

The killings came 10 days after a similar incident at Kent State University in Ohio.

The marker, which will stand on Lynch Street across from Rose E. McCoy Auditorium, will be unveiled at 11:30 a.m. The project is a joint venture of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division and the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

VSporto sets listenership record in September

October 16th, 2012 No comments

Ridgeland-based VSporto had in September the most listeners it’s ever had in a single month, the company announced last week.

The company developed and operates Rebel Sports Radio and Bulldog Sports Radio, both of which provide 24-hour team-specific programming that is available online and via apps for iPhone and Android platforms.

The channels launched just over a year ago, and have grown their audiences steadily since. Those numbers peaked in September, when VSporto says it reached 195,885 listeners for the month, which included online streams. (That’s more than the combined capacity of the football stadiums at Ole Miss and Mississippi State.) Those listeners streamed more than 62,000 hours of content, the company said.

A chart that shows how VSporto’s listenership has grown from September 2011 to last month can be seen here.


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Vicksburg river museum has 3,000 visitors in first full month

October 15th, 2012 No comments

The Lower Mississippi River Museum and Interpretative Site in Vicksburg had just short of 3,000 visitors in September, the first full month it was open.

The numbers were released Thursday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which funded and built the museum.

The museum’s mission is to help its visitors understand how the Mississippi River and its tributaries that stretch from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico work together to create a waterway whose waterborne commerce is a big contributor to economic development for the cities and towns up and down their banks.

Exhibits include an outdoor model of the river from Vicksburg to Greenville, a 1,500-gallon aquarium that features aquatic life native to the river and a retired Corps of Engineers towboat. The model includes a demonstration of how the levees work in normal and flood waters. Lat year, the levee system experienced its toughest test since it was built in the early 1930s when a 100-year flood pushed against it.

No major breaches were reported, and the levees generally earned praise for saving towns like Vicksburg from historic floodwaters.

The museum opened in mid-August. Its hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from April to October from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. It’s closed on Mondays.

Fifth Circuit asks for briefs related to non-economic damages cap

October 8th, 2012 No comments

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has asked attorneys involved in a personal injury lawsuit that brought into question the constitutionality of Mississippi’s $1 million cap on non-economic damages to re-brief the issue.

The cap was a large part of the state’s tort reform in 2004.

The order the appeals court entered Friday comes on the heels of the Mississippi Supreme Court refusing to decide the cap’s constitutionality over the summer.

Lisa Learmonth sued Sears and Roebuck Co. after she was involved in a car wreck with one of the company’s vehicles. A federal court jury awarded her $4 million in damages, but the presiding judge reduced the award to comply with the cap. Learmonth’s attorneys, arguing the cap was unconstitutional, appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit, which kicked the issue to the state supreme court with the directive that justices decide the constitutionality question.

Attorneys for Sears have until Oct. 22 to re-brief the issue. Attorneys for Learmonth and the state must respond by Nov. 5.

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Charter schools, Medicaid expansion hot topics at Jackson stop of Gunn’s Ideas Tour

October 8th, 2012 No comments

Among the most popular suggestions at the Jackson stop of House Speaker Phillip Gunn’s Mississippi Solutions – An Ideas Tour were the need for the state to expand the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, and the lack of need for charter schools.

More than 100 people and a handful of legislators joined Gunn at the Capitol to kick off his 9-city, week-long trek across the state to gather ideas and input from citizens about how to move the state forward and improve quality of life.

“We’re trying to bring the Legislature to them,” Gunn, R-Clinton, said.

Out of 16 people who offered their thoughts, three asked Gunn and the lawmakers to expand the state’s Medicaid program as part of the Affordable Care Act. In its June decision upholding the ACA, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the option of expanding their Medicaid programs, but would not incur penalties for not doing so.

Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have said since that expanding Mississippi’s program would be cost-prohibitive because it would add nearly 400,000 people to the rolls. Gunn has promised to examine the issue once the session starts. He reiterated that stance after Monday’s event.

Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, was among the pro-Medicaid expansion crowd, saying refusing to do so could erect barriers to quality healthcare, and increase uncompensated care costs for hospitals. “Some of those hospitals could be forced to close,” Sivak said.

George Schimmel, who sits on the Jackson Public Schools board of trustees but said he was speaking as a citizen, said legislators should be careful when considering charter school legislation to ensure that traditional public schools are not unnecessarily harmed.

“Weakening traditional public schools weakens communities,” he said.

Bryant has said charter school legislation would be near the top of his list of priorities when the 2013 session starts in January. A charter school bill died last session when a group of DeSoto County Republicans coalesced to kill it in committee.

A state’s power to govern itself was the focus of Laura VanOverschelde’s idea. “We’re experiencing a loss in state sovereignty,” said VanOverschelde, the vice president of the Mississippi Tea Party and the organization’s issues chairman. “We’re seeing a federal government that wants to take over the lives of people.” VanOverschelde urged lawmakers to consider legislation that would assert Mississippi’s sovereignty.

Other ideas included state assistance for nonprofits providing financial education to the poor, clarifying statutes governing state control of 16th section land, an increase in the tax on wine, a smoke-free workplace bill, increasing the state retirement age, small business tax reform, and cheaper access to prescription drugs taken to treat multiple sclerosis.

Gunn’s tour was headed to Greenwood and Hernando later Monday. It wraps up Friday in Brookhaven with stops in Tupelo, Columbus, Meridian, Hattiesburg and Biloxi in-between. The full schedule can be viewed here.

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Under Armour SVP: Co. still embraces underdog role

October 4th, 2012 No comments

In the late ‘90s, when Under Armour was brand new and not making much money, company founder and CEO Kevin Plank used a connection to outfit with his apparel the stars and extras of the film “Any Given Sunday.”

The exposure once the film, which starred Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino and told the story of a fictional pro football franchise, hit the big screen would be priceless. There was a problem, though.

“Unless they knew what it was beforehand, people were going to think that our logo was a movie prop,” said Steve Battista, senior vice president, brand creative, for Baltimore-based Under Armour.

The solution: Under Armour would place an ad in an upcoming issue of another fledgling venture, ESPN The Magazine. But that created another problem: there was no way to pay for it.

To fix that, all 15 Under Armour employees agreed to give up two paychecks so Plank could afford the $30,000 vertical ad that covered only one-third of one page. Among the workers was a seamstress who lived in a tent with her husband because they couldn’t afford a house.

The ad made it to print, “Any Given Sunday” scored big at the box office and Under Armour took a giant leap forward.

Battista, one of the first 20 people hired at Under Armour, told that story as part of his presentation Thursday morning at the Fall Forum at Millsaps College’s Else School of Management.

Under Armour has moved past scraping together capital to market itself. In 2011, the company did $1.5 billion in sales while employing 5,000 people worldwide, and has become as recognizable as Nike, the sports apparel industry’s alpha dog.

Reaching that point required a ton of work and a lot of luck, Battista said. Under Armour had to build its brand, telling a good story in the process. An example of that is the company’s first marketing slogan that stuck: “We Must Protect This House.”

Battista, who developed the slogan and the campaign built around it, said each perfectly reflected the attitude of the company in the early 2000s. “We knew the big guys were going to come after us,” he told the crowd at the Leggett Special Events Center. “The equipment managers at the schools we worked with, our retailers, everybody told us that our competitors were going to start selling their stuff at a loss so they could get rid of us. They could afford to do that, and we knew it.”

Under Armour knew it had to counter, so its way of introducing itself to consumers who defaulted to Nike or Adidas for sportswear was to make a statement that, even if it wasn’t intentional, doubled as a promise.

“We had a brand and we had a story to tell,” Battista said.

As it moves to cut into Nike’s share of the global marketplace – the company this year opened its first store in China — the underdog role is one Under Armour still embraces. “We’re still a bootstrap company,” Battista said. “We love for our employees, especially the rookies, to come in and show us they can get after it, that they’ll fight. That’s what we’re all about.”

There’s no better personification of that, Battista said, than the seamstress who gave up money she and her husband desperately needed so Under Armour could start the process of becoming relevant as a brand. She still works at Under Armour.

“But now she has a big, nice house with a pool,” Battista said.


Hosemann tells Starkville group research incentive bill still in works

October 2nd, 2012 No comments

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has pushed the past two legislative sessions a bill that would provide a 10 percent tax credit to businesses that contract with Mississippi universities for technology-based research.

The bills have died in committee either in the House or the Senate.

Speaking in Starkville last week, Hosemann made it clear that he plans to try again when the 2013 session starts in January. Hosemann said that the study groups he assembles every year to study the state’s business laws and make recommendations to improve them are still working on the issue. Hosemann said he’s gotten support for the issue from officials at IHL, Ole Miss and the University of Southern Mississippi. A Starkville Daily News story on Hosemann’s entire speech can be read here.

Federal funds to pay for the kind of technology-based research Hosemann is talking about have all but disappeared over the past five years.

Hosemann’s research incentive bill wasn’t the only tax credit legislation that died at the Capitol last session. Hosemann also introduced a bill that would have offered tax credits to businesses that move their headquarters to Mississippi. Another would have allowed employers to pass through a job-creation tax credit to employees.

Tax credit legislation overall didn’t fare well last session. There were exceptions, the inventory tax phase-out being the most notable.

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Choctaw, Webster, Montgomery counties plan economic development partnership

October 1st, 2012 No comments

When plans for a regional economic development organization in the Golden Triangle were unveiled last month, there was talk that similar set-ups would start to appear in other parts of Mississippi.

Since Sept. 14, two have been made public. Chickasaw County officials decided in late September that they would pursue a partnership with Pontotoc and Union counties. Monday afternoon, officials from Choctaw, Webster and Montgomery counties announced they were forming a union of their own.

Stone-Adams, a business development and consulting firm in Jackson, will handle economic development for the three counties as they form the partnership.

“This is a very good opportunity for Mississippi to show how collaboration and cooperation can provide a model for sustainable economic development,” Stone-Adams founder Nick Walters said in a press release.

The conglomeration will be called the Regional Economic Partnership of Mississippi when it starts operation, which should be by the end of the year, Walters said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. Walters said the idea arose about six months ago among supervisors from Choctaw and Webster counties as his firm’s professional services contract to handle economic development for Choctaw County was getting close to expiration. Montgomery County entered the discussion shortly thereafter.

Since then, each board of supervisors has voted to officially join the group.

Here’s the Mississippi Business Journal story about the Golden Triangle Regional Development LINK being a possible trendsetter.

Here’s Ross Reily’s column offering an endorsement to the idea of regionalism.

Banks, Waller promise fair, efficient Miss. Supreme Court

October 1st, 2012 No comments

Mississippi Supreme Court District 1 Candidates Bill Waller Jr. and Rep. Earle Banks touted different kinds of experience Monday as they made their case to about 50 people at a Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon.

Waller, the incumbent who serves as the court’s chief justice, said the entire court system has progressed since he was first elected to the bench in 1996.

The last seven circuit court districts that did not originally offer drug courts have either started them or are in the process of doing so, he said. Drug courts serve as an alternative sentencing for those charged with drug crimes. It does not require incarceration but subjects offenders to intense monitoring and drug screening.

Waller said the savings from those 3,000 people being in drug court instead of behind bars amounts to $38 million annually.

“But that’s not the reason to have it,” he said. “The reason to have it is the 350 graduates we have this year have a 70 percent success rate, of not going to prison.” The recidivism rate for those who follow the traditional path of incarceration and release is 70 percent, Waller said.

Expanding the Mississippi Electronic Courts pilot program and setting in place court user-funded pay raises for trial and appellate judges and district attorneys were things Waller listed as improving the efficiency and independence of the state’s courts.

Banks said his 40 years operating a funeral home in Jackson and 20 years as a state representative are proof that he’s a community –minded servant.

“It’s an honor to serve my neighbor,” Banks said.

Banks spent the majority of his speech promising to arrive at the supreme court with fairness and impartiality. “And I will follow the law and be open-minded on every issue, even if it’s one I either supported or opposed as a member of the Legislature.”

Banks also sang the praises of the state’s drug court system. He said he helped fellow Hinds County Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, usher the bills establishing the program through the steps needed for passage. “That kind of legislative experience is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

If there was any tension between the two, it was when Banks pointed out that his campaign has not taken any money from political action committees. “That’s something we won’t do,” Banks said. “This campaign is about representing people.” Banks said his campaigns for election to the Legislature had accepted PAC money.

Waller has gotten endorsements and the requisite financial contributions from PACs representing almost every business group and trade organization in Mississippi, and from some outside the state.

Waller said that although he has not restricted such donations, he does not know who has or has not given them to his campaign. Keeping track of donors is something he leaves to campaign staff, he said.

“As long as we have elections, you’ve got to pay for the elections and contributions is how you do it.”

Waller has been endorsed by the state Republican Party. Banks, who serves as a Democrat in the House, has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party. Banks called the notion of political parties endorsing candidates in nonpartisan judicial elections “a farce. It is what it is, and it’s the law.”

“I think it’s a fact of life,” Waller said. “We’re in the vote-getting business.”