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More than a village

Teamwork among communities in Mississippi is critical for economic development success

In the realm of economic development, teamwork is everything. It can take more than a village — sometimes an entire county or region — to land a new prospect or effect an expansion of an existing business or industry.

While that has long been true, today’s environment makes it absolutely crucial that communities play team ball. New technology makes communities much more transparent and gives prospects an opportunity to narrow their list of potential sites much earlier than in the past. And, the recession has made economic development an even more competitive industry.

Mitch Stennett, who heads up the Economic Development Authority of Jones County in Laurel, has said that, in his opinion, the biggest happening in the economic development industry in years was the advent of the Internet. Not only does this mean prospects want answers quickly, it also affords them a chance to take a virtual tour of a community, representing the “first cut” in the site selection process. Thus, communities must put on their best face and keep it on at all times.

“Often times, a prospect has already checked out such things as your education system, healthcare and other aspects of your community before you even know they are looking at you,” Stennett said.

Other rounds of cuts follow the “Internet test,” particularly if prospects have hired a site selection consultant. Stennett said this often includes an extensive site selection survey and other preliminaries.

It is after these first rounds of cuts that local business and community leaders and elected officials become involved. How involved depends on the prospect and nature of the business.

Stennett pointed to one recent prospect that Jones County landed as an example of a company that wanted to be very public in its site selection process. The company will offer a “green” product, a popular current trend, and it wanted to get face-to-face feedback from the community.

Many times, however, prospects want to stay as far out the public’s eye as possible. Publicity can be a deal-killer.

“A lot of times, the prospect wants to keep a large degree of confidentiality. Often, we even have to sign a non-disclosure agreement,” said Gary Matthews, executive director of the Tishomingo County Development Foundation in Iuka. But, he added that when prospects do want interaction, having community leaders who are enthusiastic is critical to success.

Tom Troxler could not agree more. Executive director of Rankin First Economic Development Authority in Brandon, Troxler said prospects often look at groups that one would not think are of interest.

“You must have the support of the business community, education, medical community,” Troxler said. “Some even want to meet with civic clubs. They are looking at the complete package, the commitment of the community and quality of life. It is absolutely critical.”

Troxler said prospects often want to meet with their peers to get a clear picture of everything from workforce information to commuting patterns. While prospects certainly want to get in front of public officials about incentives, infrastructure, etc., it is the private sector that often “sells” a community.

Stennett said he gets deep support from the Jones County business community. He particularly singled out Ellisville-based Howard Industries.

“Billy Howard told me if there is ever anything he can do, he’s available,” Stennett said.

Howard’s commitment also extends to prospects that may have already decided against coming to Jones County. It is here that community pride can become turf warfare. When a prospect decides against a community, economic developers have an ethical responsibility to try and get that prospect into another Mississippi community.

“I don’t remember ever competing with another community near mine except once,” he said. “Sometimes we are the comparison community, but I never run into the situation of competing against, say, Hattiesburg or Waynesboro or Collins.”

“When it becomes apparent that a prospect is not coming to us, obviously our next preference is to see that they land somewhere in Mississippi,” Matthews said. “We will bend over backwards to help them.”

Troxler said the key to successful recruitment or retention is to sell your community, as opposed to tearing down other communities. That can come back and slap a community’s face.

Stennett remembered one time when a community near his came in and tried to lure away one of Jones County’s major employers. The group was in town and attempting to woo the company before Stennett even got wind of it. Rather than sell its community, the group instead attempted to run down Jones County. Perhaps not surprisingly, the company stayed with Jones County.

“We will not slam another city,” Stennett said. “We sell our assets.”

Troxler perhaps said it best. “Bad-mouthing others is never successful,” he said.

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