February 2, 2018 10:41:21 AM
When Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Columbus) told listeners on the Gallo radio show on Jan. 25 that a major aerospace project that would create 4,000 jobs was expected to come to Mississippi, economic development officials from one end of the state to the other were caught flat-footed.
"Our office started getting tons of calls right after the story ran on the Gallo show," said Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins. "We didn't know anything about it. So we checked around with power providers and other people in the state. We even called our government agency (the Mississippi Development Authority) asking if this was a project. Nobody knew anything about it."
Smith's bombshell came near the end of the segment as Smith was talking about the bond packages he expected to work on as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Smith said there would be bond talks for Institutions of Higher Learning funding, then dropped the news that has left the state's economic development officials scratching their heads.
"We have a rather large project looking at Mississippi and we're hoping they say 'yes,'" Smith told host Paul Gallo. "It's aerospace, so that would eliminate 80 of the 82 counties."
Asked how many jobs would be created, Smith said "over 4,000."
Reached Thursday, Smith said the information came from Gov. Phil Bryant on Jan. 23 when Bryant met with the Republican caucus.
"The governor was making a report about what's going on," Smith said. "He commented about some statistics and then said, 'I'm proud to announce that we have an economic development project coming in.' He didn't say we were in the running for it. He said it was coming. He said it was going to be in the aerospace industry and that it would bring thousands of jobs.
"I did tell Gallo that it would be 4,000 jobs, but that was just my estimate," he added. "Everything else I said on the show came from what the governor told the caucus."
Gallo said Thursday he was surprised by Smith's announcement.
"As you know, usually within the confines of the Legislature, that kind of thing is kept pretty quiet so they don't screw it up," Gallo said. "So, yeah, I was surprised."
Although he didn't mention it on the air, Smith told Gallo that the development would be located either on the Gulf Coast or in Lowndes County, both Smith and Gallo confirmed.
After the show, Smith was surprised when an MDA official called wanting to know the source of his information.
"I told him, 'it came straight from your boss, the governor,'" Smith said. "There were probably 75 to 80 people in the room when he said it."
Rep. Gary Chism (R, Columbus) said this morning he attended the caucus and confirmed that Bryant mentioned "a possible project that could be coming" but did not recall other details Smith mentioned on-air.
The governor's office has not responded to requests for information on this story.
Higgins said he remains skeptical of the project.
"We checked with enough sources that if it were real, even if it wasn't in our service territory, we'd know about it." Higgins said. "We haven't heard anything at all."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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