Haley Barbour sees a day when expansion under way at the Panama Canal brings unprecedented prosperity to Mississippi.
Phil Bryant, the Republican nominee seeking to follow Barbour as governor, sees a day when Jackson is a center for health care with a dozen or more medical centers rivaling Houston, Texas.
Democratic nominee Johnny DuPree will likely espouse some long-range goals, too.
It’s the “vision thing” we hear about.
But Barbour, preparing to leave office after eight years, says one thing he has discovered during his two terms is that state government is poorly structured to engage in long-range planning, especially of the type needed to create lasting economic development.
At a meeting of the state’s newspaper industry in July, Barbour went so far as to say it is impossible for the legislators to think beyond their four-year terms. It was a criticism, but also a reality. There are exceptions, such as multiyear highway programs, but lawmakers are more like firefighters. Even if they had wanted to devise long-term projects, they’ve been putting out blazes, scrambling to find funds to get the state through the next 12 months. They’ve had no time (and little interest) in developmental measures.
That’s what makes organizations such as Advance Mississippi and the Mississippi Economic Council essential. They and several other groups take the state’s economic pulse constantly.
In addition to speaking to the press, Barbour was on the Gulf Coast to meet privately with stakeholders on his much-maligned notion that a serious investment in port facilities now will result in thousands of jobs during the next 10 to 15 years.
The work in Panama will double the canal’s capacity by 2014. As Barbour and many others see it, Gulfport, if prepared, would become the most affordable destination for hundreds of ships delivering goods from Asian ports.
Today, most of those ships offload on the West Coast. Containers are dispatched to their destinations via truck or train. Once the canal is expanded, the most time- and cost-efficient route to any point east of the Mississippi would be through Gulfport, but only if it has the infrastructure.
As for Bryant’s notion, it’s not clear – other than an ample availability of health problems – why or how Jackson would become a health-care capital in the South. But he wants to make it happen. And it would take more than one or two terms to see it to fruition. Same for any big ideas DuPree envisions.
The particular area of emphasis for Advance Mississippi, led by Tupelo’s dynamic Glenn McCullough, is the availability and price of energy.
If the American economy ever shows a pulse again – and the smart money says it will – multiple factors will determine where new investment will take place. The buzz terms are “stable taxes,” “adequate workforce,” “predictable regulatory environment” and “ample energy at affordable prices.”
Same as the port. It’s the old, “If you build it (or have it), they will come” model.
Advance Mississippi has just released an audit showing Mississippi is very competitive today in the price of electricity. A commercial customer pays $93.20 here for the same amount of power that, on average, would cost $102.60 elsewhere in America.
Because the power here is produced, for the most part, by natural gas or nuclear-fired boilers, the energy is also “clean,” which McCullough lists as another important factor.
But like ports and medical complexes, new power plants do not come into existence quickly. For example, the owners of Grand Gulf Nuclear Station started the early site approval process nine years ago for a second reactor. Approval was granted, but has been shelved for three years.
Behind all the clamoring for governments – local, state and federal – to do something to create jobs, there are certain truths. One is that government jobs are dependent on the private economy. Creating government jobs alone does not add significantly to the private economy. Another is that government’s role in providing private sector jobs, opportunities and growth is mostly in the boring arena of long-term improvements.
It falls to groups such as the MEC and Advance Mississippi to sit on the shoulders of lawmakers as long as it takes, to identify the state’s strengths and devise ways to parlay them into more good things for citizens.
And it falls to us to realize that there are no miracle cures for an economy. Job creation is methodical. Speeches and slogans are fine. Patience and planning bring results.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.