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Going outside the box

The George Ohr Arts and Cultural Center

The George Ohr Arts and Cultural Center

Peranich makes sales pitch for bond issue to keep tourism projects on target.

The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA)  appeared Sept. 24 before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to submit its budget request for fiscal year 2011, which starts next July.

The numbers portion of the MDA’s presentation went off without a hitch. Executive director Gray Swoope told lawmakers the MDA could operate with about the same amount of money in FY11 ($22.6 million) as it is in FY10, which started July 1. The vast majority of the MDA’s funding comes from federal dollars.

After the financial boundaries were established, Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, who sits on the JLBC, had a sales pitch for Swoope and his staff.

Peranich, who has served in the Legislature for more than two decades, has been part of bond issue after bond issue that paved the way for economic development mega-projects to move forward.

The last major deal came almost three years ago, when lawmakers approved $323.9 million for site preparation and infrastructure construction for the Toyota plant in Blue Springs.

As of Aug. 31, $150 million of that had been spent. The state will request another $30 million in its fall bond sale to pay outstanding contracts. The plant’s opening has been delayed indefinitely while Toyota waits for market conditions to improve. The state also issued bonds before the Canton Nissan Plant opened in 2003. Incentives for existing companies are also common. Late last year, Cooper Tire was on the receiving end of $36 million in state incentives after the company announced it was closing one of its four facilities in the Southeast. The Cooper plant made the cut and recently announced it was expanding.

Peranich, though, had an idea that would put future bond money to a more immediate use, and prop up an industry that is gaining traction in some parts of the state.

Issuing state bonds for several tourism projects that need additional funding to become fully functional would reap benefits now instead of later, said Peranich, who chairs the House Tourism Committee.

“Must we only invest in bonds that are for Toyotas and Nissans and Cooper Tires?” Peranich asked. “Why can’t we ever bond and invest in Mississippians and put Mississippians to work now with some of these projects (instead of waiting for Toyota to start production)?”

A good example of the state’s financial support showing positive returns is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, which opened in Sept. 2008. The museum carried a price tag of $15 million, half of which the state picked up via bond money.

According to Swoope, the museum had 30,000 visitors its first year of operation and helped Sunflower County enjoy a 4.4 percent increase in sales and use taxes while the economy was in a recession.

Mississippi’s rich musical heritage is also showcased in the Mississippi Blues Trail, a collection of sites that wind from the birthplace of Muddy Waters in Rolling Fork, to his homeplace in Clarksdale, and down to the old Subway Lounge in Jackson.

“We’ve heard about the success of the Blues Trail, investing in Mississippi, putting Mississippians to work now and not down the road,” Peranich said. “Unfortunately, we are where we are (financially). The people who need to work now are people in the service industry. They need the opportunities for jobs. If you look at the state, that’s predominantly what we have.

“We’re looking all over the state. We’re looking at the Highway 61 Blues Trail. We’re looking at the Jimmy Rodgers Museum in Meridian. We’re looking at projects all over to generate and spark investment in tourism. All over the state we could put Mississippians to work today. I think the scale is weighed toward major industry. I would like to see some balance and some investment in Mississippi and in Mississippians from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico.”

MDA Division of Tourism director Craig Ray rattled off a list of several projects to Peranich that could use additional funding – the Infinity Project at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, the Mississippi Children’s Museum in Jackson – both of which have already received some state money — and the Tunica Welcome Center whose plans include conversion to a blues museum.

“There are several tourism projects that with completion could make an impact, like the B.B. King Museum,” Ray said. “That shows what these projects could mean to the state.”

By CLAY CHANDLER I STAFF WRITER

clay.chandler@msbusiness.com

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