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Barbour's selection of MDA chief stuns, pleases developers

After weeks of intense speculation that former state economic development chief Jimmy Heidel would be a shoo-in for the top spot in the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) under Gov. Haley Barbour, a new rumor that real estate magnate Leland Speed of Jackson would lead MDA began gathering steam a week before Barbour made his announcement.

When Barbour declared on Jan. 8 that his selection was indeed Speed, speculation shifted to who would be named second-in-command at MDA.

Heidel, who served under Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice from 1992 to 1999, and Area Development Partnership (ADP) president Gray Swoope of Hattiesburg, who is also president of the Mississippi Economic Development Association (MEDA), had both been interviewed for the job, but Barbour and Speed were mum on the decision at the press conference, and economic developers said they would be surprised if either one took the COO post after vying for the top spot.

“No. 2 obviously needs strong administrative management skills, as well as being a strong communicator,” said David Rumbarger, president of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo.

Roger Clark, executive director of the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association (NMIDA) in West Point, said, “Having a successful business person like Mr. Speed as executive director of MDA, and not a traditional economic development professional, is something we in Mississippi are not accustomed to, but this is done in many other states and with success.”

“A businessman like Mr. Speed has business contacts that I’m sure will be beneficial to our state`s efforts in economic development,” he said. “I also think that Gov. Barbour is going to bring the national and international business community to the state, and with Mr. Speed`s help, that goal can be better achieved.”

A Jackson native, Speed earned an industrial management degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He served as Airman 3/C and second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, and in intelligence with the Strategic Air Command.

Last year, Salomon Smith Barney referred to Speed as the leader of the best performing REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) in America. He is chairman of Parkway Properties Inc., a REIT specializing in the ownership and operation of office properties, and chairman of EastGroup Properties Inc., an equity REIT whose investment emphasis is in the development and ownership of industrial properties. It is unclear whether he will remain chairman of both companies after taking on his new MDA role. Both publicly traded companies are based in Jackson.

“He is a true visionary with a proven history of bringing people together for a common purpose,” Barbour said about Speed. “His extensive and successful business experience as well as his long-time involvement in community affairs exemplify the highest standard of excellence. He is a Mississippi success story and an example of how Mississippians can make it to the top of their profession.”

Speed is also chairman of Delta Industries Inc., a building materials company, and serves as chairman of Downtown Jackson Partners and the Jackson State University Development Foundation. He is a member and past chairman of the board of trustees of Mississippi College, past chairman of the United Way of the Capital Area and past chairman of the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce.

“I was fortunate to get to know Leland Speed during my days at the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce,” said Robert Ingram, executive director of the Greenwood-Carroll-Leflore EDF and former senior vice president of economic development of the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce and coordinator of the Metro Economic Development Alliance.

“He is a brilliant businessman, a visionary and a leader. He will certainly bring unique expertise to the position. Hopefully a strong number two person will be employed to handle day-to-day activities and thus allow Mr. Speed to use his considerable contacts and talents to bring major new projects to Mississippi. This appears to be a stroke of genius on the governor`s part.”

Many economic developers in the state declined to comment about Speed, only because they did not know much about him. John Hendrix, assistant director of economic development for the Mississippi Band of Choctaws in Choctaw, said he could only comment “in theory.”

“In just over one generation, Chief Martin took the tribe from 75% unemployment to now the third largest private employer in Mississippi,” he said. “If you follow his formula for success, he was an entrepreneur first and an economic developer second. Without the vision and instincts of an entrepreneur, all of the available economic development tools and resources will be less effective. Mr. Speed is obviously a successful entrepreneur on a nationwide level, with a passion to make Mississippi a better place. At this point, I am optimistic about this selection.”

During Gov. Ronnie Musgrove`s four-year term, three people served as executive director of the state`s economic development arm, and the agency name was changed from the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (MDECD) to the Mississippi Development Authority. Musgrove`s first selection was Batesville banker J.C. Burns, whom he fired after the $930-million Nissan deal was made. He then hired Bob Rohrlack, a Florida economic developer, who left last year. He appointed Senatobia mayor Steve Hale to fill Rohrlack`s spot.

Chandler Russ, executive director of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Development Foundation, said he understands that Speed “will probably approach MDA differently and will bring a unique professional experience to the job.”

“I look forward to working with him in Brookhaven and Lincoln County, and wish him the best as he tackles this new endeavor at MDA,” he said. “Mr. Speed`s and Gov. Barbour`s contacts are nearly limitless.”

Whoever assumes the No. 2 spot “must be able to hit the ground running,” said Russ, “understanding the state, the Legislature, MDA and especially the needs of Mississippi beyond established MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas).”

Mississippi Technology Alliance president and CEO Andy Taggart said Speed is exactly what Mississippi needs as the leader of MDA.

“The governor has just hit a grand slam,” he said. “Leland Speed is the picture of the kind of public servant that I believe the founders envisioned for the country: he has built a successful business, been a true civic leader and has devoted countless hours and risked his own dollars to help better his community and our state. Leland understands the importance of moving our state to a technology and knowledge-based economy. We look forward to working with Leland in accomplishing our common mission of championing science and technology-based economic development for the State of Mississippi.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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