By JACK WEATHERLY
If it wants to remain competitive with other states, the Mississippi Development Authority needs to streamline and recognize that communications technology has changed.
The agency has heeded those findings from a 2014 study funded by the Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce.
Streamlining means better delivery of services, said George Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, who headed up a committee that worked with Deloite LLP and Garner Economics in developing the study.
It also means eliminating jobs — the MDA will close its eight regional offices around the state and eliminate 11 positions on June 30.
That means annual savings of $751,000 in wages and benefits, not to mention the cost of operating the offices, according to MDA.
The agency’s operating budget from the state’s general fund was cut 1.7 percent, or $400,000, for fiscal 2016, which starts July 1, according to the Legislative Budget Office. The current operating budget is $23,442,081, compared with $23,042,081 for fiscal 2016.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the agency was to get a 10.7 percent increase in funding from the general fund — $26,713,438 compared with $24,122,081 — but that included money from other state sources and was designated for specific projects and not at the agency’s discretion.
Asked if the budget cut was the primary reason for the elimination of the eight offices and 11 positions, Marlo Dorsey, chief marketing officer, would only say on Friday that “the changing landscape of community and economic development was also a significant factor.”
By the time the regional offices close, an enhanced website will have been in place two months.
The website, Gov. Phil Bryant said in a release on April 29, will enable the state to “consistently market our competitive advantages around the world.”
Mississippi Economic Development Executive Director Blake Wilson said that “the new website paves the way for us to match resources and business assets in a more efficient way.”
Around the world is one thing, but the local level may be another.
Elimination of the offices is “going to put greater [pressure] on smaller towns,” said Sue Stidman, director of Winona Main Street and Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
The town of 5,400 in north-central Mississippi will be “kind of isolated even more,” Stidman said. Nevertheless, she said she is going “to embrace the new plan.”
Frank Howell, director of the Delta Council Development Department, which represents 18 counties in northwest Mississippi, declined to comment.
Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc. a public-private group, said in an email Tuesday that for 30 years of their existence, the regional offices served their purpose. Initially, they were supposed to be “microcosms of the [MDA], but over time that model changed.” Additionally, many of the local economic development organizations were actually the offspring of the regional MDA offices, he said.
“In short, the duplication of the economic development services coupled with greatly evolved technological improvements has made this great 30-year-old idea obsolete.”
“MDA, like all our organizations, must not focus on what the perceived loss may be, but what, in fact, the state may gain from change.”
Dorsey said in an interview on Tuesday that through digital means “we can still provide top-notch service.”
“How we collaborate with our communities will be a little bit different without our regional offices, but they will be able to receive the same level of service.”
The website takes to heart that industrial expansion has changed in the 21st century, with companies initially taking a “desk top” look, Dorsey said.
That’s where the “analytically driven” website comes in, she said.
These days, work force availability and training are the No. 1 factors, she said.
To that end, the site includes the size of the work force in the state and by county, as well as the prevailing wages in each category.
The site is cross-referenced and integrated. The state map can be overlaid with, roadways, rail lines, ports, airports and colleges.
Capping the site off are 40 videotaped and unscripted “success stories” — or as Dorsey calls them “third-party validations” — told by industrial executives, educators and line workers.
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