Burns right to listen more and talk less

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 8, 2000

Anyone who came to Monday’s meeting looking for spoon-fed answers walked away disappointed. J.C. Burns, the newly appointed executive director of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, didn’t come armed with answers. Instead, he came with questions, a cadre of staff members eager to take notes … and two ears for listening.

&uot;You know why God gave us two ears and one mouth?,&uot; he quipped to the roomful of Southwest Mississippi business and community leaders. &uot;To talk less and listen more.&uot;

And that’s just what Burns tried to do on his &uot;Partnership Tour&uot; stop in Adams County.

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&uot;I’m not going to give you my vision,&uot; he offered in reply to a question. &uot;What we’re doing today is forming that vision … it’s to establish in our own minds where we are today, where we need to go, and then come back to how we need to get there.&uot;

That’s an ambitious goal for the former banker from Batesville, and perhaps even more challenging when involving Southwest Mississippi – where our own economic development efforts are fragmented, if well-meaning.

But Burns is talking about basic concepts that – if he can build support and implement – could simplify the crucial but elusive concept of statewide economic developments.

His first step is the partnership. &uot;Our state is too small, our assets are too few … not to work together,&uot; he said.

For Burns, that means a regional approach to economic development – a concept he knows works. &uot;The county&160;I came from did not have a good solid tax base … the ability to generate dollars (for industrial park development and economic development)&160;just wasn’t there,&uot; he said. &uot;If that’s the case here, I’d strongly recommend you pool resources.&uot;

And, it means fixing the parts of the DECD that aren’t working.

Top on his list is the minority business development programs, an area of the agency which he said has been ineffective in recent years.

In fact, Burns has already met with more than 60 top CEOs in the state and members of the Legislative Black Caucus to review the program … to ask questions and listen, again.

&uot;We’ve identified four areas we have to work on,&uot; he said. &uot;One is access to capital, another is access to markets …&uot;

Most important, it means finding out what the needs and expectations of the state’s residents are and finding a way to chart a path for economic development throughout the state.

&uot;I want to be remembered as a builder of partnerships and as a good steward of Mississippi’s money,&uot; he said. &uot;… And I&160;know when it comes to the ‘Mississippi miracle,’ your perception may be a little different depending on where you stand.&uot;

Standing here in Southwest Mississippi, we have a skewed vision of that &uot;Mississippi miracle.&uot; We are floundering when it comes to economic development, hand-strapped by laws that bring politics into what should be an apolitical process and trapped in the middle of turf battles.

And, while community and business leaders are meeting again – and again – to come up with the right answer, people in Adams County are sitting at home, without jobs.

Education, opportunity, resources, facilities, workforce, transportation, funding … how does a state, a region or a county magically pull together all of the parts to yield a greater sum – real economic development?

Burns may not be spoon-feeding any of us the answers, but he’s listening. And he’s asking the right questions. It’s up to the folks in Southwest Mississippi – and the rest of the state – to take advantage of the chance to bend his ear.

Stacy Graning is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at (601) 446-5172 ext. 239 or at stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com