Oxford economic leader: Pay attention to small fish

Published 11:04 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018


NATCHEZ — As communities across the state go whale hunting for big economic prospects, the City of Oxford’s director of economic development contends that taking a tropical fish approach has helped make his city’s economy strong.

Jon Maynard, the president and CEO of Oxford/Lafayette Economic Development Foundation, spoke Tuesday to a packed dining room of local business people at the Carriage House Restaurant. Maynard was the guest speaker for the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly membership luncheon.

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During the luncheon, Maynard presented his ideas for improving economic development by focusing on quality of life issues instead of just focusing on recruiting large industries.

“That is what I call whale hunting — getting the big projects to land in your community,” Maynard said. “When we think about economic development we typically think about the big deals.”

“But are we really doing economic development?” Maynard said.

Using data he had compiled from various public sources, Maynard demonstrated how despite trying to land big fish, most counties in the state have lost population and have lost jobs, particularly in manufacturing.

Added to the problem are pressures from the Internet, social media and the migration of millennials out of the state, Maynard said.

“These days we are losing human beings to Austin, Nashville, Charleston,” Maynard said. “There are so many Mississippians who are being sucked out of this state by those communities that have talent recruiting budgets bigger than my budget and (Natchez Inc.’s) budget combined.”

There is an urgency to do something different, Maynard said.

Instead of whale fishing, Maynard said communities might find part of the answer in what he has discovered make Oxford successful.

“We have been tropical fishing in Oxford for nearly 30 years now,” Maynard said.

Unlike whale fishing, Maynard said Oxford has been able to attract, foster and grow several small companies that did not ask for incentives or deals. Those companies include tech firms such as FNC, Next Gear and mTrade. Other companies include Winchester ammunition, No Time 2 Cook and Cotton’s Café.

With a tropical fish approach to economic development, Maynard said Oxford has been able to enjoy since 2000 a 40 percent population growth, 7,830 net new jobs, and an increase in annual wages and per capita income.

How has Oxford been able to accomplish such tremendous growth and what lessons can other communities take from Oxford’s success?

Maynard said he has identified “four fundamental characteristics” that can be mapped or mirrored by other communities.

First, communities should spend more time recruiting people.

“If you spend time recruiting people, make sure they are happy and make sure they want to stay, they will bring jobs and grow jobs on their own,” Maynard said.

Creating communities in which people want to live and work is critical, especially when other towns and cities are competing for the same people.

Once you have the people, you have to support them, Maynard said. A community needs to shop local, spend local, eat local and enjoy local.

“You have to go out and support the hell out of (the community’s) services,” Maynard said.

The third thing that is important for communities and the one that may be the hardest, Maynard said, is to find common ground and put the community first.

“Every community has issues and every community has to get over those issues,” Maynard said. “You have to put community first when there is a decision to be made.”

Finally, Maynard said a community has to show that it “gives a damn.”

Maynard said when he returned to a community in which he has previously served, he saw evidence that residents cared little for the community.

“Litter, street signs with graffiti, broken sidewalks,” Maynard said. “They are issues there that say they don’t really give a damn.”

Oxford is very different, Maynard said.

“Oxford Mississippi has the biggest give-a-damn factor than any place I have ever been. Every day there is a complaint about litter,” Maynard said. “We work very hard to set the bar high.”

Maynard said he is not trying to tell people to be like Oxford and he said he is not trying to say to people to stop fishing for big industries.

“The reality is there is not a right way to do it or a wrong way to do it,” Maynard said.

You have to focus on both recruiting large business and on creating a community where people want to live.

“You will grow the economy because you will have more people who want to be there and are interested in where they are. That is the tropical fish approach,” Maynard said.