Is state agency undermining economic development?
Published 12:54 am Sunday, November 26, 2017
Joe Max Higgins has never been accused of being a wallflower.
The CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK is anything but soft-spoken. He breaks the mold of the typical economic development executive. He’s rude, brash and occasionally vulgar. And he’s unashamedly so.
But Higgins has also been extremely successful during the past 14 years at the helm of the Columbus area’s economic development engine.
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Higgins told The Commercial Dispatch newspaper last week that since his arrival in 2003, the LINK organization has averaged — averaged, not totaled — recruiting $400 million in new projects and 500 jobs for the region.
His success is so amazing that CBS’s “60 Minutes” TV news show featured him last year.
If a hall of fame existed for economic developers, Higgins have hall of fame statistics.
Last week when Higgins started spouting off criticism of the Mississippi Development Authority, his bellowing was taken seriously.
Higgins said the MDA was undermining development efforts instead of promoting them.
That’s a bit like accusing the rural Mississippi preacher of being a devil-worshipping fornicator.
Higgins blasted MDA’s reorganization efforts as being tantamount to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” The Columbus Dispatch reported.
Higgins told the newspaper he simply did not trust MDA or its staff any more and said many of his peers around the state feel the same way.
Most having had far less success than Higgins simply don’t want to rock the proverbial boat.
MDA’s Executive Director Glenn McCullough must be replaced, Higgins said, and his lieutenants, aka project managers, need to be paid more. In the past those positions were paid between $75,000 and $95,000 annually. Now, presumably in an effort to lower the budget, they are paid between $30,000 and $40,000.
The difference, Higgins said, is the lower paying positions do not attract experienced, capable people.
The result is hurting Mississippi, Higgins told the newspaper.
In short, he said projects the state should be able to land are going elsewhere.
He further blames, not only MDA, but also the state’s leadership — or lack thereof — on handling issues that are of great importance to some business owners looking at the state.
From the state flag containing a Confederate battle symbol to the state’s ongoing woes with improving its public education system, the headwinds against the state’s success are high, Higgins said.
The Columbus newspaper quoted Higgins summing up a rather damning fact against Mississippi.
“We’re the only sunshine state losing population, and that should tell you something,” he said. “… If we don’t do something soon, Mississippi is going to be natural selection in reverse.”
Higgins is loud-mouthed, uncouth and raw. But he is also pretty much on target, too.
Higgins can blame McCullough for the state’s economic development woes, but I blame Gov. Phil Bryant.
Our own community lost out on a more than $1 billion paper plant last year. Sun Paper instead went to Arkansas.
Because they fought for it from the top down. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was involved in the recruiting process and lobbied hard for big incentives to help seal the deal.
Bryant seemed disinterested in the paper deal. Given his small-minded outlook on international business, it may very well have been because he doesn’t trust China, even though they’re America’s largest trading partners.
Until something changes in Mississippi’s focus on and investment in economic recruitment, we’ll continue to flounder, and the decidedly non-wallflower in Columbus will have plenty about which to complain.
Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.