Wilson: Development will take new attitude

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Rural Mississippi is not alone in feeling the effects of a growing globalization of the marketplace, a state business leader said Friday.

Blake A. Wilson, president and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, spoke to a group of about 50 business, education, health care and government leaders at a forum sponsored by Scott Kimbrell, Natchez business owner and a member of the MEC board of governors.

Kimbrell said having input from the MEC is important for Natchez. &uot;Blake cares about Natchez, and he involves us in what the MEC does.&uot;

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Woody Allen, chairman of the board of the Natchez Adams Economic Development Authority, said the messages were important to hear. &uot;We have to keep building our team,&uot; Allen said.

Wilson covered many areas related to economic development, such as tort reform, education and fiscal responsibility.

&uot;How are we going to deal with Southwest Mississippi? It will require a different mindset,&uot; Wilson said. &uot;More emphasis must be put on existing jobs and keeping as many as a community can. Maybe a company has to go from 200 to 150 jobs. But at least we hold on to something.&uot;

Working regionally, as the Natchez area now does within a 10-county area of Southwest Mississippi, is one of the best opportunities in economic development, Wilson said. &uot;There is not a lot of activity going on out there,&uot; he said. &uot;Develop a regional plan, as you are doing. And celebrate a victory even if it does not happen in Natchez.&uot;

Like many other states, Mississippi finds itself in a financial hole, he said. &uot;But that doesn’t mean the first thing we should do is raise taxes.&uot;

Some of the steps taken in recent years to improve the state’s education are beginning to pay off, Wilson said.

&uot;In about 60 days, you are going to see something you have never seen before. Every school &045; not every school district, but every school &045; will be rated as part of the accountability program.&uot;

That means establishing benchmarks for schools, identifying the ones that are struggling and forming partnerships to help them raise their levels within a three-year period.

&uot;It’s going to take help from all of us within the community. The key is partnerships.&uot;

Wilson likened the challenges in public education to those facing leaders who decided the state needed better highways.

&uot;They got together and said, ‘we can do this nine miles at a time,’&uot; Wilson said. &uot;Today we are number four in the nation per capita in four-lane accessibility.&uot;

The same can be done with schools, he said. &uot;Incremental steps lead to exponential progress.&uot; Positioning Mississippi as a state where businesses and industries want to locate will benefit from further tort reform, Wilson said. &uot;We’ve made some improvements, but there is still a long way to go,&uot; he said. &uot;The problem is that it takes about three years before seeing any benefit from those steps.&uot;

The opening of a Nissan manufacturing plant in Madison County was huge for the entire state, he said. &uot;Does it affect Southwest Mississippi directly? Not a whole lot. Not yet. But it has attracted tremendous attention to the state, and we can use that to attract more industry to the state.&uot; The Natchez area may have opportunities within several years to lure some Nissan suppliers. The initial group of suppliers have to be geographically closer to the plant, he said. &uot;It will take three to five years,&uot; Wilson said.

It will take the plant maturing for those opportunities to come along.&uot;

Wilson spoke frequently of partnerships, and that was something Michael Ferdinand, executive director of the Natchez Adams Economic Development Authority, found compelling in the presentation. &uot;The MEC from the private business side wants to pull the whole state together, to give good synergy to the whole process of business development.&uot;