States may scrap for top developer

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

So you are Gov.-elect Haley Barbour and you ran a campaign based on your ability to recruit new jobs to the state. One question: Who do you get to run the Mississippi Development Authority?

The MDA is the governor’s arm for affecting real change in the business community. While the governor may be constitutionally weak in many governing areas, here is where the office is strongest.

Several names have already been swimming around as scuttlebutt continues to grow over who will head what agencies. Jimmy Heidel, a former MDA head, has been tossed around because Barbour’s team is using him to help select members of the new administration. It is not out of line. Anyone remember when President Bush tapped Dick Cheney the businessman to lead the search for a vice president? It’s Vice President Dick Cheney now.

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Still, common sense tells you that if you are looking for a good developer to lead the state’s main economic development agency, then you look for the best groups in the state and who is at the helm there. That could lead you to Hattiesburg where Gray Swope is the main man for economic development. But with Swope, some economic developers think the focus would be more on existing business and less on recruiting internationally. That would be a major shift in direction from recent years and therefore probably will not fly.

So go South and look at the Harrison County Development Commission where Michael J. Olivier has been the executive director since the mid-1980s. Olivier is considered to be one of the top four developers in the state, both in job scope and pay scale. He has brought national recognition to his agency’s efforts. Under his watch, the Gulf Coast has enjoyed enormous prosperity and weathered the current economic storm better than most. In short, Olivier’s credentials are impeccable.

And consider this as well: from a political standpoint, Olivier would be an excellent appointment for Barbour, who campaigned heavily on the Gulf Coast and in south Mississippi to let people there know that they would not be forgotten by his administration. Giving one of his plummest appointments to that area of the state would be a terrific political move for Barbour, not to mention he would get a heck of a guy to boot.

Olivier, from all first appearances, seems a natural choice, but there are other things to be considered. Olivier is from Lafayette, La., where he founded that region’s economic development body. He left that job on his own accord, but ask those who move in economic development circles and they will tell you that Olivier exited about the time the oil business there went bust. The powers-that-be needed someone to blame and the hired hand was going to be it regardless of the fact that he had no control over it.

But Olivier’s ties to Louisiana run high in state government, straight to the top, in fact. He is a former schoolmate and good acquaintance &045; if not friend &045; to Democratic Louisiana Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco. Like Barbour, Blanco will inherit a state budget that is some $600 million in the red going into next year. She will need a strong pick as her main economic developer, as will Barbour.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that Olivier’s name is rumored to be on Blanco’s short list as well.

In Mississippi, the head of the MDA is one of the most scrutinized, pressure positions in state government, especially given the current economic conditions and Barbour’s pledge to recruit more businesses to the state to help shore up a sagging economy and help offset large job losses.

Olivier, whose political leanings seem to be toward the Republican Party, has shown he can do as much. He’s skilled in domestic and international job recruitment, one of his most recent projects being to work with a regional council on the coast to foster trade relations with Cuba. Either state would do well to have him.

For Olivier, the decision could come down to choosing between hometown and political allegiances. Of course, a third option exists. Olivier could stay exactly where he is for now. In that case, at least part of Mississippi would continue to benefit from his success.

Sam R. Hall

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