OUR OPINION: Rumbarger sees obstacles, opportunities

By NEMS Daily Journal

The end of a month filled with newly sworn legislators taking their seats, a new governor’s inauguration, other state officials taking oaths, and “states of” speeches necessarily gives way to the normal and intense work of both government and the private sector.
Community Development Foundation President and CEO David Rumbarger reflected on what’s ahead – or should be ahead – in Mississippi in economic development work during a conversation last week with the Daily Journal.
Rumbarger – who had spent part of Wednesday talking with Mississippi Development Authority Interim CEO James Barksdale, the internationally known entrepreneur who founded, among other businesses, Netscape – said the major themes for action in 2012 have been strongly articulated in recent speeches and presentations by Mississippians:
One essential point – the beginning point – for action was articulated by Darrin Webb, Mississippi’s chief economist, who pulled no punches a few weeks ago when Mississippi’s senior economist said lack of educational attainment, low literacy rates, and many factors associated with poverty make it difficult for Mississippi to expect dramatic or fast progress outside the context of more learning, better reading, and better work force training.
Webb’s analysis, Rumbarger suggests, found structural partners in Gov. Phil Bryant’s outright endorsement of the Blueprint Mississippi plan developed by the Mississippi Economic Council and a statewide cast of business leaders, educators and industrialists who see possibilities – all resting on the education cornerstone.
Bryant, Rumbarger noted, called for developing a program that would allow high school students to enroll in community-college level work force training before graduation, in part to discourage their dropping out of school, and also to provide an even stronger and more advanced basic foundation coming out of high school. Rumbarger said all the elements are in place to achieve that goal if institutional flexibility at several levels allows participation.
Rumbarger also sees an additional productive step that should be undertaken: Creation of an incentive fund at the gubernatorial/MDA level that is fully competitive with other Southern states like Louisiana and Georgia, whose ability to grasp opportunity on a virtual moment’s notice outreaches Mississippi.
Rumbarger did not cite but it is worth noting the growth projections from the U.S. census that place Mississippi by 2030 as the least-populous Southern state. Arkansas, which trails our state now, is projected to zoom past Mississippi and have about 3.25 million residents by 2030 while Mississippi barely will have passed the 3 million mark. Our population today is about 2.9 million.
If we lose enough population in comparison with the rest of the states our congressional delegation could shrink further in loss of House seats. We will be a tiny poor state in a region of faster-emerging economic engines – especially Florida, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Texas is projected to have 33 million people – more than 10 times Mississippi’s population.
More specifically, if Northeast Mississippi cannot rev its engine to further close the achievement gaps among its residents and itself compared to the rest of the state our situation will not have improved in comparative terms.
Rumbarger said even MDA, which developed its own cast of star leaders during the Haley Barbour administration, must rebuild with the loss to other states of employees like former director Gray Swoope and exceptional staff members who left for greater opportunity here and elsewhere.
Rumbarger also said the jobs lost in Northeast Mississippi in recent years cannot be fully regained with growth even of Toyota’s magnitude, or like the development corridor along U.S. 82 in Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties. Catching up and moving ahead must be with better jobs, which depends, back to the starting point, on education matched with opportunities in expanding and improving existing industries or new investment with leading-edge technology.
The first decade of the 21st century is finished, and we’re moving on. It’s fair to ask, “Are we better off in overall quality of life than in 2000?”