Our view: Are taxpayers playing against loaded dice?

January 11, 2013 10:18:40 AM



In September, Link CEO Joe Max Higgins took the podium at a large gathering East Mississippi Community College to announce that a steering committee had been formed to examine the possibility of Starkville/Oktibbeha County joining West Point/Clay County and Columbus/Lowndes County in what became the Golden Triangle Development Link. 


In that address, Higgins used a gambling analogy to explain the benefits of the new coalition. At the time, Higgins' use of the analogy raised a few eyebrows. When you are trying to reassure folks, you usually don't characterize anything in gambling terms. 


But as we have come to realize, the gambling analogy proved quite fitting. 


It used to be that economic development was all about sales. Although the art of the sale remains an important part of luring industry to Mississippi, it's clear that today, as the nation staggers forward from The Great Recession, economic development is very much a game of chance. And in any game of chance, there are winners and losers. 


Our community came out on the losing end on our most recent trip to the tables when the much-ballyhooed Silicor project turned out to be all style, no substance. We walked away with a quarter-million dollar hole in our pocket on that roll of the dice.  


Of course, in the beginning the Silicor project looked like a sure bet. Backed by venture capitalist John Correnti, who had spun gold with Severstal, the Mississippi Development Authority and the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors happily anted up an incentive package of almost $19 million for what was projected to be a $600-million project that would produce 971 jobs.  


The prospects of a big win obscured some troubling aspects, not the least among them that Correnti had been on something of a losing streak since the glory days of Severstal. A rebar plant in Columbus, a rebar plant in Amory and a steel mill in West Point. Correnti crapped out on each. The losing streak continued with Silicor. 


And yet, almost as soon as the Silicor Project died with a wimper, the MDA said it was agreeable to working with Correnti to find another site in Mississippi for the project. That's easy enough for the MDA, of course. It lost nothing. But the MDA's eagerness to work with Correnti in wake of the bad deals suggests that it feels no obligation to the communities that do suffer a loss, be it in dollars or lost opportunities. That cavalier approach by the MDA is, to put it mildly, disturbing. 


The Silicor deal isn't the only recent example of our state has losing big at the Great Roulette Wheel of Economic Development. In December, the state lost a $27-million incentive bet when Twin Creeks Technologies, a solar panel manufacturer, went belly-up in Senatobia.  


Those kinds of losing hands beg the larger question: Should the taxpayers of Mississippi should be at the gambling table in the first place? 


There is a saying that the best way to win at a casino is not to go to the casino in the first place. 


But while that's an option for an individual, the taxpayers are going to the gambling table without a say in the matter. 


In almost every special session of the Legislature convened to discuss an economic development package, state legislators have voted yes. It's a rubber-stamp operation if there ever was one. 


We understand -- to a point. Clearly, in our state, the demand for jobs and industry are of vital importance. 


We are not suggesting that the state take itself out of the game, necessarily. 


What we would like to be assured of is that we aren't playing a game where the dice are loaded. 


Correnti's continuing appeal to the MDA and his connections with powerful leaders, including Columbus Sen. Terry Brown, the pro tempore of the Senate, are beginning to look suspect. That his community lost a quarter-million bucks in the Silicor collapse does not appear to have put a strain on Brown's cozy relationship with Correnti.  


Without the kind of disclosure required of virtually every other state contract, the economic development game is suspect. Is it a matter of well-connected alliances and hush-hush deals made in smoke-filled back rooms? We don't know.  


What we do know is that we're at the tables, whether we taxpayers like it or not.  


It would be nice to at least know the odds. 


And it would be nice to know that the MDA realizes that there are some games that just aren't worth playing. 


It's not "house money," after all. It's ours.