Does state have cash for top developers?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Michael Olivier&8217;s enviable position is the perfect illustration of the challenge Mississippi faces in economic development and at exactly what level our state must operate to succesfully bring new jobs to our people.

Olivier has served nearly two decades as the executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission. He currently is working with Gov.-elect Haley Barbour&8217;s transition team to find a new head for the Mississippi Development Authority.

A few weeks ago I wrote Olivier would be a tremendous choice for the job himself but that Mississippi would have to outdo Louisiana for him. Olivier founded and once ran a regional economic development association out of Lafayette, La., and is old school chums with Louisiana Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco.

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Last week Olivier confirmed to me two things: 1) He would not put his name in the hat for the Misssissippi post, and 2) he has been contacted by Blanco&8217;s people about the Louisiana position, in which he said he is &8220;very interested.&8221;

Olivier&8217;s candor is absolute in discussing the two positions. He said he has great respect for Barbour, loves Mississippi and sees the MDA position as a great challenge. All that said, it comes down to the bottom line. Simply put: Mississippi does not pay enough.

&8220;I have current financial obligations, and I could not stand to take the pay cut,&8221; Olivier said last week.

When Olivier speaks of a pay cut, he is talking about from his current position on the coast to the state job here. As for the state job in Louisiana… &8220;It&8217;s a pay increase,&8221; Olivier said. &8220;I wouldn&8217;t be looking at it if it was not. I could not afford to look at it if it was not more than what I am making now.&8221;

Olivier has thrown his support behind former MDA director Jimmy Heidel. Heidel is also assisting Barbour&8217;s transition team while working with Vicksburg for their economic development efforts. Olivier has made it no secret that he thinks Heidel did a tremendous job under former Gov. Kirk Fordice and could do it again under Barbour. Olivier told me as much; he told The Mississippi Business Journal as much; and he has reportedly told Barbour as much.

Still, one must look at Olivier&8217;s position and the truths surrounding his current career decisions and wonder exactly how poised Mississippi is to do battle with surrounding states when it comes to economic development. Olivier makes well above what the MDA position would pay. For that matter, several areas in Mississippi do. Those would most likely include Hattiesburg, Tupelo and perhaps some central Mississippi locations.

What does that mean? It means when the Harrison County folks want to go up against local economic developers on the Alabama and Louisiana coastlines that they have the financial resources to do so. But when small town Mississippi is in need of landing an industrial prospect then they must rely on the MDA, who we already know is not the top-paid person in the state and therefore usually does not attract the names like Olivier.

This is not to belittle Heidel, who widely considered as one of the state&8217;s best economic developers is an exception to the rule. With him, it&8217;s different than with Olivier. Heidel, as Olivier said, can afford to return to the state. Furthermore, Heidel&8217;s allegiance to Mississippi is deep and committed. We could do little better and far worse if Barbour taps Heidel to once again lead the MDA.

Heidel aside, our state must look to the rule instead of the exception. The formula for success in economic development is the same as in education. If we do not pay our teachers well, then our best new teachers will leave the state for our neighbors where they can make more money.

Likewise, if we cannot form a strong enough economic development network in our state that boasts the financial advantages of our neighbors, the Oliviers will continue to leave for greener pastures. And when we run out of Heidels, then where will we be?

Sam R. Hall

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