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‘Coopertition’… The new strategy for working together

Economic development is a competitive business. States, in particular, are often pitted against each other in an effort to land major job-creating prospects. And yet in this age of regionalism it is sometimes necessary for states to cooperate with each other. At a recent luncheon sponsored by the Mississippi Economic Development Council two of the South’s premier state economic developers made a joint appearance and offered an inside look at how their agencies and states have cooperated and competed against each on several major projects.

Neal Wade, who just left the executive director’s job at the Alabama Development Office, and Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, enlightened the audience regarding several projects about which few people knew that the two states had worked together. Their presentation was titled “Coopertition: The New Strategy for Working Together.”

Wade set the stage by saying that “coopertition” is “…collaboration where it makes sense so you can compete where it makes sense.”  He said that his research revealed that what he thought was a new term actually originated in the automotive industry where two rival companies decided that they would work together on a new engine and share technologies because it would benefit them together even though they would later compete against each other. Coopertition is not new. Wade used the example of Mississippi Ford dealers running a cooperative advertising campaign, but then competing against each other. And although economic developers, and even governors, understand that an entire region benefits when a new project is brought into the area local officials sometimes do not understand the concept.

“The problem is always to make the mayors and the commissioners and the councilmen to be happy when the town next to them got the project and they didn’t,” he said.

The highlight of their presentation was examples where they laid aside competitive spirit and cooperated for the betterment of the region. Swoope said that during the recruitment of Toyota Alabama Gov. Bob Riley issued a letter supporting the Mississippi site.  And on the Golden Triangle aerospace project an agreement was signed by several counties in both Mississippi and Alabama to support aerospace development in the Golden Triangle region.

Speaking of aerospace projects, the Aerospace Alliance, which is comprised of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a stunning example of four states coming together to bring an entire industrial and commercial complex to a region. One of its current projects is an effort to land the KC-45 Air Force aerial tanker replacement project in Mobile, Ala. Swoope pointed out that many workers in the Mobile area actually live in Mississippi. Thus, if Alabama gets the project Mississippi will benefit. Wade said that an announcement is expected soon on that project. Two years ago the Aerospace Alliance hosted an event in Paris that included the governors, the senators and business leaders from the four states. They were able to meet personally with European business leaders in a social setting so that they could get to know each other personally. This year the Alliance will host another event in London with European aerospace executives and aerospace alliance. Wade said that these events offer the opportunity to have quality time with CEOs and decision-makers, not just salespersons and middle managers. He also said that Swoope came up with the idea of doing an “Aerospace Summit” between the four states in the near future.

Swoope and Wade provided new insight into the marketing and promotion of the Kewanee Industrial site on the Mississippi-Alabama line near the intersection of Interstates 20 and 59, and which is located in both states. Several years ago an agreement was signed between the governors of Alabama and Mississippi to work together on not only this site, but any project along the state line. When Volkswagen (VW) was rumored to have a project looking at sites in the U.S. Wade and Swoope took proactive action and traveled to VW headquarters in Germany in February of 2008 to submit the site. “Our goal was to get in front of the decision makers,” said Swoope.   Although the project ended up going to Tennessee the effort showed that cooperating on the marketing of the site was beneficial. During the luncheon presentation they also showed some materials from the VW presentation, including a hastily prepared video of Governors Barbour and Riley discussing the site and the merits of their states. The video was filmed in a New York hotel room while the two state leaders were attending a National Governors Association meeting.

“Governor Riley and Barbour changed a hotel room into a set. There was only one take, but it worked,” said Swoope.

Later in 2008, when it was rumored that Volvo was interested in a U.S. manufacturing location, Neal and Wade went to Sweeden to promote the site. “Working together behind the scenes” and “under the radar” was a phrase Swoope used several times. The two made a similar pitch this year, but Swoope would not reveal the prospect.

Another initiative was a Southern multi-state initiative to market the region to China this past June when nine state economic developers from the South had an economic forum with their counterparts in China. That was followed up by leaders from China coming to meet with the governors at the Southern Governors Association Conference in August. Wade said that individually it would be hard to penetrate a China market, “…but you can do it with 16 Southern states working together to build an American South brand.”

Wade and Swoope concluded their remarks by discussing the four things they believe are necessary to make coopertition work. They are as follows:

1.  Must have a common synergy. (Some regions may simply not work; and, there may be certain times that, because of the situation, it may not work.)

2.  You must have clear ground rules

3.  You must respect the competition (bring value to the table)

4.  You must have trust (absolute truth)

What this writer took away from the presentation is that coopertition is about relationships. This region is fortunate to have such economic development leaders – and the economic statistics from the past decade are certainly a testament to that.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government in Jackson. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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