All for one and one for all

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Over a period of several years, Rusty Hawkins saw what

several development organizations working separately, each with its own agenda, got his hometown of Vicksburg. Absolutely nothing. But he talks excitedly about the model the town is now using for economic and community development.

&uot;I have become convinced this is the only way our little community can go to the next level in terms of programs and development and the things we need to grow,&uot; Hawkins said.

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Hawkins was referring to The Alliance, an organization composed of members of just about every group that has a stake in economic and community development in Vicksburg and Warren County.

The Alliance meets at least once a month to figure out the goals it wants to achieve for the area and nail down ways to achieve those goals.

At the table are members of the chamber, convention center, convention and visitors bureau, history foundation, preservation and beautification groups and the port commission, among other organizations.

What makes The Alliance’s supporters so sure their model will work?

As an accountant Hawkins, vice chairman of The Alliance, is used to working with hard numbers. And with a model similar to the one they’re following, the numbers seems to add up.

That model is that of Hattiesburg and its Area Development Partnership, which has worked to bring 2,500 jobs and $200 million in industrial investment to the Pine Belt area since 1995.

The roots of that organization are grounded in 1990, when the chamber and industrial foundation dissolved their separate corporations and merged.

But it was then-Methodist Hospital Administrator Bill Ray who took the lead in making the ADP what it is today, said ADP Executive Director Gray Swoope.

&uot;We started looking at resources of both groups, started looking at are being effective or could we do something different?&uot; Swoope said.

Hattiesburg’s model now works like this:

The ADP handles economic development, retiree recruitment and convention center management (by contract with the Hattiesburg Convention Commission) for Hattiesburg and Forrest County, all under one roof.

It contracts with the Forrest County Industrial Park Commission and the Lamar County Economic Development District to provide staffing and marketing for economic development.

It also shares offices with the Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. Although the ADP and the CVB are not affiliated, sharing offices still makes it easier &uot;for the right hand to know what the left hand is doing,&uot; Swoope said.

Having so many development functions under one roof just makes good business sense, Swoope said.

&uot;From a customer’s perspective, visitors to Hattiesburg &045; whether they’re a retiree, a small business owner or someone looking to locate a large manufacturer or bring a convention to town &045; want to come to one place and get any answers and materials they need,&uot; he said.

&uot;Even though we’re multiple entities, they get one reception. It’s more customer friendly,&uot; he said, adding that it’s more cost-efficient to share staff and other resources.

Swoope is convinced that convenience &045; along with location, transportation, ready-to-go property and incentives &045; can mean the difference between a company locating in the Pine Belt or elsewhere.

He pointed to industrial locations in the area in recent years: Sunbeam in 1995, Kohler in 1996, Western Container in 1997, Dickten & Masch in 1998, Owens Illinois in 1999, Convergys in 2000, USA Yeast in 2001 and BAE Systems in 2002.

Armed with that track record the ADP &045; with a budget of more than $1 million, 65 percent from the private sector &045; has launched three capital campaigns, Swoope said.

But Swoope is quick to add that Hattiesburg’s ADP structure, or any &uot;cookie-cutter&uot; model, will not work for every community. &uot;Each community has to look at what works best for them,&uot; he said.

In any case, he said, structure alone cannot boost business recruitment efforts without broad-based support from the business community.

&uot;Our board has key decision makers, a who’s who of the business leaders in this area, and they sell (this concept) to the community,&uot; Swoope said.

While it may not work for every community, Vicksburg decided in 2001 to adopt the Alliance model.

And during a recent visit to Natchez, veteran economic developer Jimmy Heidel said The Alliance has already raked in millions of federal and state dollars for a variety of projects

Those projects include an interpretive center and museum, low-income housing, transportation and more.

Heidel, former director of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, now directs Warren County’s port commission, economic development foundation and chamber.

The Alliance’s next goal is to compile information about the funding of each of its organizations &uot;to make sure there’s no duplication,&uot; Hawkins said.

Agencies in The Alliance are also raising money to fund a five-year strategic plan of projects.

Upcoming projects include port improvements, other transportation developments and even the relocation of the historic Pemberton House to draw more tourists into the downtown area.

And with The Alliance in place, Hawkins said he is sure more improvements are in store for Vicksburg-Warren County. &uot;This way,&uot; he said, &uot;industries will know we’re all working off the same page.&uot;

City Editor

Nita McCann

can be reached at (601) 445-3554 or by e-mail at nita.mccann@