By BECKY GILLETTE
When the Madison County Economic Development Authority (MCEDA) wanted to do a nationwide search for a new executive director, it selected the firm VisionFirst Advisors based in Tallahassee, Fla., headed by a name very familiar and respected in Mississippi economic development circles, Gray Swoope. Swoope, who was executive director of MDA from 2007 to 2011 before taking over as CEO/secretary of commerce for Enterprise Florida Inc., now oversees the firm’s economic development work in 22 states.
Swoope said it was natural for them to be involved in helping MCEDA select its new executive director, Joseph P. “Joey” Deason. VisionFirst Advisors was already working on a competitiveness assessment for Madison County.
“The MCEDA board wanted to know what one of the most prominent counties in Mississippi needed to do to elevate their game,” Swoope said. “From doing that work, we got to know the personality of the board, and of the elected officials, as well as the vision of the business leadership. Because we were able to provide our report, we knew their direction and vision, so they asked us to extend our contract and do talent acquisition for them. We did a search utilizing our nationwide network of economic development professionals. We screened it down to four of five candidates for the board to consider. They did interviews and ultimately chose Joey Deason. Joey has taken the work we did in the report and has implemented some of those recommendations.”
Swoope draws on experience from many levels of economic development. He started out as director of business development for the North Mississippi Industrial Development Authority before becoming executive director of the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce in 1988. In 1990, he was executive director of the Starkville Oktibbeha Development Council in 1990 and then worked for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission starting in 1991 before becoming CEO of the Area Development Partnership in 1997.
In 2004 he was tapped to become chief operating officer for the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) before becoming executive director in 2007 where he played a vital role in recruiting companies to the state such as Toyota, PACCAR, GE Aviation and Severstal. Then, in 2011, he moved to head economic development efforts in Florida—which has an economy 6.5 times the size of Mississippi—as CEO/secretary of commerce for Enterprise Florida.
In 2015 he joined with former MDA and Enterprise Florida colleagues Melissa Medley and Griff Salmon to launch VisionFirst Advisors.
Medley said Swoope is a consummate professional, passionate about his chosen field and the ways communities can change, businesses can grow and lives can be improved through economic development.
“He is a visionary, inspired leader who truly cares about those with whom he works who gives selflessly for the betterment of all,” Medley said Medley, who is a principal with VisionFirst Advisors. “Gray grows leadership in others. If you look over the course of his 30 plus year career, it would be difficult to name all of the projects he has been involved in that changed the course of communities, regions and states. But more significantly, the lives he has changed through his kindness and servant-leadership are innumerable. Looking only at those within the economic development industry, today many of the leaders in the field including many in leadership positions throughout the Southeast are where they are today due to their work with Gray in the past. He has indelibly marked his profession for the better through the leaders he has grown. This is a fact that few people will ever know.”
Swoope said people ask him all the time if VisionFirst Advisors is just a placeholder until he finds that next economic development job.
“The answer is an emphatic, ‘no’,” Swoope said. “We have agreed to build a practice, and bring people on the team who have the passion for the work and add value to our clients. We want to continue to build this practice and work with many clients, both corporate and communities. I’m excited about what we are doing, and we are having a good time doing it. It is an exciting time.”
In two years the company has built an impressive list of clients, including businesses as well as economic development organizations. They work for private businesses, as well as government economic development groups.
“Now we have opportunities to work both sides of the fence, so to speak,” Medley said.
The chairman of the board of directors for VisionFirst is former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. The company is a subsidiary of Butler Snow. Swoope said that gives them the advantage of the intellectual capital and resources of the firm with 400 attorneys in 17 states, as well as international offices in London, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“Having the resources of Butler Snow creates a synergy for all of us working together,” he said. “It gives us an advantage over another consulting firms out on their own without the bench strength of an organization like Butler Snow. We have a client now in a community that has a university and is looking at different options to commercialize resources. I can turn to Butler Snow and talk to public finance guys who have done similar work in almost every state in the country. That adds value for our clients.”
Florida’s economic development model is different from Mississippi’s. Swoope said both models work for their states’ benefit. Since 1996, Florida’s model has been a public-private partnership compared to MDA, which is strictly public. Enterprise Florida, the state’s public- private 501c6 entity contracts with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, a state agency. Through its board of directors, Enterprise Florida integrates business leadership into the process.
“Each state has to figure out what works best for them,” Swoope said.
Swoope said working in the consulting space, they see it on both sides.
“We look at it from establishing the needs of the clients, understanding what they are trying to accomplish and then we work with community partners to find out what is a win-win for both,” Swoope said. “In Florida, any company that uses any type of public assistance has to be transparent. It is confidential on the front end, but then you have to show that return to the taxpayer. We work with clients to show what is the return.”
In addition to MCEDA, other clients in Mississippi have included the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, Vicksburg\Warren County Chamber of Commerce, the Warren County Port Commission and the Warren County Economic Development Commission. Utility client in Mississippi include Entergy Mississippi and Tennessee Valley Authority,
For more information, visit www.visionfirstadvisors.com.
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