By JACK WEATHERLY
The Mississippi Development Authority’s request for a $7.7 million budget increase for fiscal 2017 comes at a time of belt-tightening.
Yet Gov. Phil Bryant – who is fond of calling himself Mississippi’s No. 1 salesman and puts jobs creation as a top priority – sounded supportive of the request in his Executive Budget Recommendation issued Tuesday night in conjunction with his State of the State address to a joint meeting of the House and Senate.
His budget overview did not detail how much he would recommend for all agencies, including MDA, but he said that “we must continue to support the economic development efforts of this state.”
“The Mississippi Development Authority continues to create an attractive environment for private sector investment, and we must provide the necessary tools to continue recruiting business TO Mississippi.
“MDA’s success includes the addition of over 5,000 jobs and $787 million in private investment in 2015. In four years, MDA projects have brought the state 21,201 jobs and over $3.1 billion private sector investment.”
Bryant also is taking another run at using $50 million “sitting idle in the Unemployment Trust Fund. Let’s invest it now in workforce training, and I will show you Mississippi’s greatest potential. We can lead the nation in economic development if you you will give us the tools to reach these goals.”
Most of the MDA increase, $5.1 million, would boost the tourism advertising budget to $10 million and make the state more competitive with other Southern states. Mississippi ranked last among 12 states in tourism marketing.
The balance, $2.6 million, would expand the agency’s overall marketing effort in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Bryant made on Jan. 21 an immediate cut of $401,000 from economic development – along with cuts in all state agencies that rely on the general fund – reducing the appropriated amount for eonomic development of $26,713,438 by $400,702. Of that amount the MDA budget was reduced by $385,702 and Innovate Mississippi by $15,000.
Of the $5.1 million tourism increase, $1.5 million would allow the re-establishment of matching grants for communities.
Daron Wilson, interim director of the tourism division of MDA, Visit Mississippi, said in an emailed statement that travel and tourism are “one of Mississippi’s most vital industries and a solid investment for our state. Last year, tourism generated $388 million for the General Fund, and visitors spent more than $6 billion. I’m hopeful the Legislature will support additional funding, so more people can see what Mississippi has to offer.”
Last May, the agency announced that it would voluntarily close all eight regional offices around the state at the end of that fiscal year, eliminating 11 jobs and saving at least $750,000.
According to one observer, because of enhanced digital communications – including the MDA’s new interactive website – the offices had become obsolete, yet had spawned local economic development organizations.
Most of the increase, $3.6 million, would be for advertising, yielding an anticipated 3 percent growth in visitors and a $186 million boost in tourist spending, potentially creating up to 2,600 jobs and increasing general fund revenues by $11.7 million, according to the agency.
The reach of market penetration would now include St. Louis, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Chicago.
Leveraging the increase with community match grants, potential visits to ads would increase by 158 percent.
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