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MBJ EDITORIAL: Questions we should ask the new chief of the MDA

Last time the State of Mississippi went to Gainesville, Fla., to fill a job, it scored a winner in Dan Mullen, whom Mississippi State University lured away from the University of Florida football coaching staff to be head Bulldog in Starkville.

Consecutive wins over Ole Miss and a pair of bowl victories have the folks behind the cowbells smiling again.

Reports are that Mississippi may have just brought another winner up from Gator Country with the selection of Brent Christensen to head the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic development arm.

Mr. Christensen, a former Hattiesburg newspaper reporter who ventured into economic development in the Pine Belt, has been president & CEO of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce the past 10 years. The holder of a degree in economics and an MBA took that job after serving as an executive with the Tampa (Fla.) Chamber.

Mr. Christensen’s willingness to leave the comfort of a post he’s held for a decade for the challenges of initiating economic growth in one of the nation’s poorest states tells us he loves a challenge. That is a mark of character in anyone’s book.

He will begin work here sometime in early June. And until he settles into the job, he is not talking to the media, MDA spokesman Dan Turner says.

It’s unfortunate that an executive who will soon fill such a key post is keeping mum about how he plans to reverse Mississippi’s stubbornly high jobless rate and bring leadership to a state that has not had a permanent economic development chief since the departure of Gray Swoope in March 2011.

Here, though, are some questions we would ask Mr. Christensen if he were willing to share his thoughts with the people of Mississippi:

>> What does success look like in Mississippi after five years on the job?

>> Other than sweetening already generous incentives, how can Mississippi remain competitive with states such as Alabama and Georgia, the latter of which just handed Baxter Medical around $220 million in incentives to set up shop near Atlanta?

>> How far should Mississippi be willing to go to retain companies such as Baxter, which after receiving Georgia’s lavish incentives may want to see what another state would pay to lure the company’s pharmaceutical operation out of Cleveland?

>> Should Mississippi continue to wager on the success of bio-fuels? The MDA has agreed to put $150 million in loans on the table to Redwood City, Calif., startup Virdia and the more established KiOR of Pasadena, Texas. Those are massive stakes.

>> How do we protect Mississippi wage levels and worker benefits as companies begin migrating to states willing to sacrifice both in the name of job creation?

>> How do we ensure that jobs created by new major employers go to Mississippi residents rather than workers brought in from elsewhere to fill them?

>> What steps can the MDA and state legislators take to ensure that enticements to certain businesses do not create unfair competition for other un-subsidized businesses? Is it possible to extend these protections to the commercial real estate market as well?

>> Is there a point at which Mississippi’s economic development executives must insist that the state get genuinely serious about fixing three major deficiencies – education, health care and teenage pregnancies?

>> How can the MDA protect itself from the kinds of legislative political pressures that led to the state’s failed $43 million investment in Beef Processors, a proposed slaughter plant for which the MDA had little enthusiasm but lawmakers insisted must be built to placate central Mississippi cattlemen?

>> How does Mississippi achieve continuity in economic development with a system by which a change in gubernatorial administrations typically brings a change in MDA leadership?

>> How does Mississippi ensure that it is getting real value for the dollars it is investing in economic development?

We look forward to posing these and other questions once Mr. Christensen gets acclimated to his new surroundings.

In the meantime, we wish him much success in helping to create new prosperity for Mississippi.

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