LOCAL story Blake’s First Friday

Wilson: Business climate needs balance

The MEC leader urges equanimity

in tort reform during his Tupelo visit.

By Gary Perilloux

Daily Journal

Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson challenged business leaders Friday to set aside regional and issue-driven differences and embrace solidarity for the sake of the state’s growth.

“That is a challenge in Mississippi; we tend to be so regional,” he told a First Friday gathering at The Mall at Barnes Crossing. The MEC functions as the state’s chamber of commerce, a role in which it attempts to create a conducive climate so that businesses may do their job and economic developers may recruit more prospects.

In a fishing analogy, Wilson said Mississippi must continue stocking its pond with manufacturers, professional firms and service sector businesses, keep the pond pristine and “fish where there are fish.”

That means undergirding the furniture cluster of 30,000 jobs in the state and helping existing companies such as Tecumseh and MTD expand. It also means going after such site-selection giants at Nissan by “blowing up the dam” to eliminate recruiting barriers.

Wilson cited an alliance of Union, Pontotoc and Lee counties that secured legislation recently to create a super-regional industrial site.

“That’s going to position Northeast Mississippi for a major project,” he said.

But barriers remain, and cool heads must prevail for the state to progress, said Wilson, who eschewed the term “tort reform” in favor of fairness and equity in the state’s legal system. Such reform measures died in the 2002 legislative session amid an acrimonious debate.

“We all win if we have a fair legal climate in Mississippi,” Wilson said, pleading for a new approach. “We have a situation where the scales have clearly swung out of balance. We have a problem in that the word is getting out that we may not have a pristine pond’ when it comes to courting industry in Mississippi.

“This is not an issue where someone wins and someone loses,” Wilson continued while stressing the need for deserving plaintiffs to gain redress. “But we have situations in the state where companies are being targeted, where advertising is trolling the lake for opportunity. … We need to remove this weed from the throat of Mississippi. It is strangling opportunity.”

Wilson also saluted Furniture Brands International chairman Mickey Holliman of Tupelo, who’ll address the MEC’s Annual Meeting May 21 in Jackson.

Holliman’s company employs 4,000 in Mississippi with an annual payroll of $112 million through its Lane division, part of an industry that ships $2 billion in furniture from the state annually.

“Maybe what we need to do is make the official state chair a lounge chair,” Wilson said. “I’d be willing to give it a try – at least it’s something to recognize an industry that’s so important to us.”

The April event, sponsored by the Community Development Foundation and SunCom, was the last before a summer hiatus. CDF’s First Friday will return in September.