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Street Talk

Elected Officials Make Business Gumbo

By Mickey Howley

Last week I was at the beach in Biloxi. With Bob Tyler. Mister Party himself. For the second year in a row. And if the company was not tough enough, the agenda was.  Listening to talks about economic development. Stuck in casino hotel conference rooms watching seemingly endless power points presentations and listening to folks trying hard to be entertaining and informative.
I told Bob we should ask for a hazardous duty pay raise. Don’t get me wrong, the food was fine, the people nice in a nervous networking type of way, and the talks informative if not sufficiently self edited. And it was important to be there near the beach but not actually enjoying it; this was the Mississippi Economic Development Council Conference and the one big event of the year where folks across the economic spectrum meet.
That means naturally most of the staff from the Mississippi Development Authority, many Chamber of Commerce folks, lots of county and regional economic people, a few electric company infrastructure brains, a smattering of business leaders, some wayward elected officials, and even a lowly Main Street director or two. This year was a bit different also for Bob and me. Last year Water Valley was a featured story at the conference. This year we listened.
So we heard people like Jerry St. Pe, the former president of Ingalls Shipbuilding, who talked about his 55 years of experience in economic development and how things have changed over time. Manning McPhillips and Conner Collins from MDA talked about the interaction of the economic development and the legislative process. Joe Max Higgins of The Link, the three county economic development association in the Golden Triangle, talked about the Yokohama Tire deal and what that means to West Point and the area nearby.
Brent Christensen, the executive director of MDA, talked about the pace of job creation in Mississippi and how MDA is focusing on Mississippi’s strongest assets and making them better.  And we heard from the staff of MDA as to how they are working on new specifics from healthcare to tourism and marketing to being competitive on the world stage.
It was all big talk, but if there was common thread, not planned, was that every speaker over three days talked about the interaction of elected public officials as the critical aspect of making economic development happen. St. Pe and Higgins both commented on the speed officials must act, and that the elected folks must be at a certain state of readiness and openness to possibilities.
Higgins make the observation that in locking in the Yokohama deal, a deal that has state incentives approaching 100 million dollars, that the most critical money was the first quarter of a million of local government money spent quickly in making the deal even come to the table. And he was quick to point out in the big industry landing game, that even a serious practitioner like himself only is successful just over 20 percent of the time.
But it was uncanny how all came back again to public officials being in the process and understanding their role and what they do to make it all happen. Jerry St. Pe perhaps said it best, comparing economic development to a gumbo; the participation of elected officials is the roux. And if you don’t have a good roux, you ain’t got gumbo.

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