By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson said Blueprint Mississippi remains a top priority for state business and economic leaders.
Blueprint was developed in 2003 to seek ways to make the state more competitive. It was updated in 2011, and Wilson was in Tupelo Friday as part of the MEC’s “Pathway to Progress Tour” focusing on implementing Blueprint’s goals.
“We want to continue to do that, in the areas of technology advancement, economic competitiveness, educated workforce and of course, resources,” he said. “People are beginning to see progress. This is a long-term deal. We’ll probably talk about it another five years because that’s what it takes to go after a major project like this.”
Wilson said the MEC is working with the Mississippi Economic Development Council and the Mississippi Development Authority on a major economic competitiveness study to determine where the state ranks.
“We’re also interested in healthcare as an economic driver – that’s a big thing up in this part of the state,” Wilson said. “There’s a real opportunity to build that sector out.”
One of the next major areas of focus for the MEC is the state’s infrastructure needs, Wilson said.
“We’re trying to put the attention on it like in 1987,” said Wilson, referring to the state’s major four-laning program.
Other state leaders have talked about the need to not only maintain what that program developed, but fix other issues like deteriorating bridges and other roads.
The state’s road system has been rated among the best in the region over the years, but funding for road maintenance and repair has remained stagnant for nearly 27 years.
“We’re losing our edge, which means we’re losing our edge in economic competitiveness,” Wilson said.
Charlie Williams, a former chairman of the Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee, is president of T1 Coalition, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the state’s transportation system.
He said companies like Nissan, Caterpillar, Toyota and others would not have come to Mississippi without the right infrastructure.
“It’s about public safety, but it’s also about jobs and economic development. We must have a good road system and we must maintain it,” he said. “The federal government will take care of the interstates, but it’s not going to take care of our state roads, and they’re not going to take care of our city and county roads. We’ve got to step up and do something. And not just roads, but bridges.”
The other major focus for the MEC is on education.
“We want to do for education what we did for the highways – lay out a multi-step, multi-year program that covers early childhood and up,” he said. “We don’t want to look at this in just four-year increments, but we’re coming up with a plan we can stick with. And if we run into economic challenges, what are the fail-safes going to be?
“Hey, we’re all under-funded, but now as time goes on and the economy improves, we need to make the right judgments of the new money coming in, and not find ourselves in 10 years wondering why we didn’t invest when we could have.”
Wilson also reiterated the MEC’s support for the Common Core State Standards, reminding the audience that it was not a federal program, but an idea that came from the National Governors Association and the National Business Roundtable.
“This is a no-brainer; it’s something we need to do.”