CONCEPT STILL THE SAME
It’s all about making your community a better place
Somehow, Mitch Stennett makes economic development look effortless. Over the last 20 years, Jones County has pulled off some impressive victories and consistently ranks near the bottom in unemployment. Yet, Stennett maintains an easy demeanor — never too up or down. He is highly admired among his peers for his professionalism as well as his neighbors for his commitment and sincerity. The MBJ recently caught up with Stennett to try and figure out what makes him tick.
Q — How did you make the jump from journalist to economic development? What was it about economic development that appealed to you?
A — My career jump was a natural for me because I had experience in two things — writing and volunteer work. My background working for my uncle’s newspaper in Ripley and my involvement in Jaycee fundraising and project work set the stage for Harry Martin to call me and offer me a job at the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo in 1979. Former Mississippi Jaycees who have evolved into full-time economic development careers include Robert Ingram in Baldwin County, Ala., Gerald Mills in Winston County, Frank Thompson in Enterprise, Ala., John Seymour in Decatur, Ala., and recently-retired Carthage/Leake County Chamber director Linda Shepard as well as many others who have since passed on or retired.
Needless to say the appeal about economic development was the same for me as what I enjoyed about Jaycee work — helping others and contributing to our state. I know that sounds altruistic, but it’s true. The old saying among us former Jaycees is that we now get paid to do what we once did for free. I’d be doing some of the community things today, even if I wasn’t getting paid.
Q — You cut your “economic developer’s teeth” in the Mississippi Delta. What were the unique challenges there? What did you learn from that experience?
A — My first job as executive director was at the Clarksdale-Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Foundation. The four years I served there taught me a lot about issues that I had never confronted before, including closer and better race relations and workforce concerns. While luring manufacturing to the Delta wasn’t easy, it nonetheless allowed me to market the assets we did have there. Exposure helped, and we had the “Big Frog in the Little Pond” marketing campaign that went worldwide. It helped bring attention to Clarksdale and the Delta.
After four years of struggling to lure manufacturing to Coahoma County, I learned, however, that the best and strongest asset was the musical heritage and all the inherent stories that went along with blues music. Tourists and visitors alike bring hard money in from outside the area. So, I learned that much of the Delta should focus on its musical heritage as one of its strongest assets and market that to the world as its most significant economic development tool.
Q — How has the economic development “game” changed since you entered the field?
A — The resources and technology in economic development have changed and the amalgamation of what we try to sell, but the concept is still the same. Today it’s not smokestack chasing, nor back-room hard sales presentations. It’s not even solely trying to get manufacturing concerns to your community. Neither do we stand alone in economic development any more. We have to make sure our communities are ready for economic development by strengthening our educational systems, our infrastructure, our healthcare, our crime prevention, etc. It’s about making your community a better place to live and work, not just about finding and entertaining prospects. Plus, we have a much better chance of locating a new business if we are working together as a region and selling our area’s strengths, rather than just highlighting one community.
In addition to those changes, we now have expanded our portfolio to work with manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, wholesale, retail, services, entertainment, etc.
Another change is that we focus more on trying to keep and expand our existing businesses, rather than putting lots of money into chasing a lot of elusive “suspects.” We also have to work harder to encourage entrepreneurs because most of our new jobs in the economy of today (and the future) will come from those.
The bottom line, though, gets back to educating our workforce of tomorrow — preventing drop-outs and teen pregnancies, and setting a standard that makes us much more competitive in education on an international playing field.
Q — You can’t win them all in economic development. How do you deal with the disappointment of a lost deal?
A — It has been my experience that you lose more than you win in the economic development profession, but each loss teaches you something about yourself, your community and the process. It’s also kind of like the insurance business — the more calls you make, the more possibility of a sale. But, despite more losses than victories, I find that my faith in God primarily and then my faith in mankind makes me realize that I get to grow from each instance.
Q — What would you count as your biggest victory?
A — That’s a tough one. I don’t have just one that stands out, but I do have one that for me emotionally was significant. Just after I started here in Laurel, in either 1990 or early 1991, a group of six or seven ladies came to my office unannounced and wanted to see me. They said the plant where they were working had just announced that they were going to sell out and all their jobs on the sewing line would be lost. Most, if not all, of them were single mothers or widows and had worked in an apparel factory all their lives and knew nothing else to do to earn a livelihood. I told them I’d check into it. I solicited the help of the state economic development agency and talked to then-director Mac Holladay. To make a long story short, Mac and his staff helped find a buyer for that facility and saved the jobs of those ladies. As I remember it, the ladies came back a few months later and thanked me. That put a major human slant to that project and showed the impact of saving those jobs and the livelihood of those fine ladies.
Some of the projects I’ve enjoyed being a small part of were: helping CDF with the Cooper Tire location in the old Penn Tire facility in Tupelo; being involved in the clean-up and sale of a former mobile home plant in Clarksdale; and, working with Howard Industries here on several expansions over the past 20 years and helping to acquire the sites for their global headquarters and Substation Transformer plant.
Q — Like it or not, you’re one of the deans of economic developers. What motivates you? And what has kept you in Jones County?
A — My motivation continues to be service. I believe that the Lord has called me to this profession and that serving people is what I’m supposed to do. People have varied gifts, as the Bible says. Whatever gifts I have I want to use them helping better the standard of living and quality of life of our citizens — and the best way I’ve found to do that is through job development and the creation of wealth. Both of those lead to better living conditions for people of Jones County and our state.
I’ve been in Jones County 20 years now and have found a home. The fine people on my board and our elected officials have seen fit to allow me to continue my service here and I don’t think I’ve done everything I can for Jones County. I want to see some of our long-range development plans completed. I firmly believe that once we pull out of this recession we’ll have additional opportunities for growth and sustainability. It’s a matter of timing, money and leadership.
Q — In your opinion, is Mississippi seeing enough good, young economic developers? Are we replacing our talent here in the state?
A — The short answer is “no” on both questions. Mississippi and the nation have just recently come to the recognition that we need to develop and train more young professionals to work in the fields of community and economic development. However, there are some universities that have been doing this for many years, but the replacement rate for those of us who are baby boomers doesn’t seem to be keeping pace with retirement.
But, the regional economic development organization that I belong to, Southern Economic Development Council, has started a group called the SEDC Young Professionals Committee and, I believe, they will help spread the word. Along with Robert Ingram of Alabama, I was co-chair of the task force that started this initiative for SEDC and I believe it can lead to great things. Also, the Trent Lott Center at the University of Southern Mississippi has recently employed an executive director, Rick Duke, that will help coordinate their economic development efforts and that should be an impetus for getting more young folks interested in a career in economic development.
I remember when Gray Swoope was new to this business as a young economic developer. He’s now the head of the Mississippi Development Authority. There are dozens of other people who can be used by the young people of today as models, and I know many of the people who have risen to good positions in economic development would be happy to mentor younger people who have a desire to serve their communities and their state. Some of those Mississippians, who started young in the economic development business, that could serve as great examples and mentors include: Steve Hardin with MDA in Jackson, Greg Barker with Alabama Power, Chandler Russ with MDA in Jackson and others, all of whom have served in many capacities in this profession.
You might see that you’ve hit my “hot button” issue by asking this question.
I will say that there is a great deal of hope for the young professionals in economic development as evidenced by some of them who are now in the business and making strides toward becoming leaders among their peers not just within the state, but nationally. They are: Larkin Simpson, who’s the Chamber director and project manager on the staff here with me at EDA; Chad Chancellor, who’s the president of the Paducah, Ky., Chamber and is a former Mississippian; Michael Ingram, the executive director of the Simpson County Development Foundation; Janel Cohen, business development coordinator for the Harrison County Development Commission; Andrew Murff, project manager with the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg; Danielle Winningham, manager of the Chamber of Commerce for the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation; and, Jennifer Turner, manager of marketing and research for the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership. These are just a few of the young people in this business that are emerging to become positive examples in this profession.
Q — Congratulations on the recent birth of your grandchild. Economic development can be a demanding career. It’s not always 9-to-5, right? How have you managed to juggle professional career with personal life?
A — Thanks! I’m proud that Braxton James Stennett is here, having arrived on July 16. I’m sure that my wife, Jamie, and I will be traveling to Nashville to visit him and his mom and dad as often as possible.
I’m afraid that my family might say that I haven’t been very good at balancing my career with my personal life, although I’ve tried. In the early years, when I was in Tupelo and Clarksdale, I spent more time on the job and not nearly enough time with my young sons. Jamie did the yeoman’s share of child-raising, but I was pretty good at attending events that the kids were involved in.
But, to do this job right, it’s not all during the day. You’re right, there’s nothing 9-to-5 about it. The only way to maintain somewhat of a balance is to set aside times that are family only, so that you can be involved in your children’s lives and spend some time with your spouse. When my sons were home (they’re grown now and live in Nashville and Mobile), Jamie and I made conscious decisions to be band parents, attend their sports activities, help with concession stands at games, get involved in their school activities and to take an active interest in their endeavors. We also chose to be very active in our sons’ church activities, and that led to a better balance for me.
Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.
Education: Memphis State University
Hobbies/Interests: Reading, yard work, sports
Military: U.S. Marine Corps
Church: Mt. Vernon Congregational Methodist, Laurel
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