November 18, 2017 10:35:49 PM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
Mississippi is suffering on the economic development front, and Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said the problem is mostly self-inflicted.
It's not just because of the controversial state flag, emblazoned with the Confederate battle emblem. It's not even House Bill 1523 -- which Higgins calls the "queer bill" or "baker bill" depending on his mood -- a law that allows business owners, on the basis of their religious beliefs, to refuse service to LGBT customers.
Neither is it Mississippi's maligned racial history, its woeful K-12 education performance nor what Higgins calls the state's inability to develop an effective overall economic development strategy.
"It's not any one of those things," Higgins said. "It's all of the above. ... Mississippi has just fallen out of being relevant (on the economic development stage)."
That's not always been the case, especially in the Golden Triangle.
Since joining the LINK in 2003, Higgins has helped bring major steel, engine and aerospace manufacturers to Lowndes County and a Yokohama tire plant to West Point.
He's helped the region develop four Tennessee Valley Authority certified megasites, which means they contain at least 1,000 acres and are outfitted with necessary infrastructure -- such as roads, water and sewer -- to attract industry. All but one are occupied.
In Starkville, the LINK is leading efforts to develop a nearly 400-acre industrial park.
But lately, for the LINK, what used to be wins are turning into second- and third-place finishes for landing big companies, despite the organization spending as much as $250,000 per project just on efforts to woo them.
"The thing that frustrates me is we should still be winning and we're not," Higgins said. "We're doing all the textbook things."
Unforced errors, he said, specifically HB 1523 and the racially divisive state flag, are turning big companies off.
The flag issue has long stirred debate in Mississippi, with voters decisively opting to keep it as-is in a 2001 referendum. Over the last two years, cities, counties and public universities across the state have ceased displaying it, leading a renewed charge for either the Legislature to change the flag or call for a new referendum.
"I know the flag's a charged issue, and I'm sure a lot of people believe if it goes to a vote, the good ol' boys will come out and vote to keep it like they did before," Higgins said. "But I think the dynamic has changed because enough people believe if the flag even could be a problem, it should be changed.
"(On HB 1523) I'm the least likely guy to be a (LGBT) advocate," he added. "I ain't gonna beat one up or anything, but I'd just as soon not be around that s***. I would still change (that law)."
David Rumbarger, CEO for the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, told The Dispatch he agrees with Higgins.
Representatives for prospective clients in the U.S. and overseas have directly told him the flag and HB 1523 bother them, mainly because companies are worried if they locate in Mississippi the Legislature will pass new laws that might "impune them."
"Whether I personally agree with those issues is one thing, but when they affect our business climate, that becomes an unforced error and a problem," Rumbarger said.
Even if they are obstructions to economic development, the Mississippi Development Authority doesn't have any plans to help remove them. In fact, public relations director Jeff Rent told The Dispatch it's not MDA's place to weigh in.
"Those are social, political things," Rent said. "We don't have a say in those."
Both Higgins and Rumbarger agree workforce development in Mississippi is on par with any other southern state, especially when considering the wealth of partnerships local agencies have with community colleges and four-year universities to develop skilled labor.
In the Golden Triangle, East Mississippi Community College is partnering with Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties for a Communiversity workforce training center, now under construction, that will be tailored specifically to area industries.
Despite all of that, Higgins said states like Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia are winning the workforce battle on perception because they better articulate their messages to companies.
Rumbarger narrowed the problem to branding.
"Even though we have extremely strong programs, we haven't branded them well, so they are largely unknown," he said. "It's like they don't exist sometimes."
Rent doesn't see it that way, adding MDA uses trade professionals and training experts to effectively tout Mississippi's workforce, especially when "the clients are serious."
When companies look at workforce, Higgins said, they also look at what will be available in 20 or 30 years. To that end, Mississippi's brain drain -- namely young people with science, technology, math and engineering skills leaving the state to work elsewhere -- makes the outlook even grimmer.
"We're the only sunshine state losing population, and that should tell you something," Higgins said. "Sitting around b****ing about it isn't going to help. If we don't do something soon, Mississippi is going to be natural selection in reverse."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.