Mississippi’s main economic development organization is in “rebuilding mode.”
John Rounsaville, the interim executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, was appointed by Gov. Tate Reeves in May,
Rounsaville told the McComb Lions Club on Tuesday that he is working to restaff the agency and better integrate the efforts of the separate agencies involved in economic development.
Both turnover and longstanding vacancies have been a problem, he said.
“The problem is, most project managers come in young, and they’re not paid much money,” Rounsaville said. “They meet people and make a lot of contacts, and then they leave and go to another organization for more pay. We’re like a farm team.”
He previously worked on former Gov. Haley Barbour’s staff as a policy advisor, and he said only one project manager remained at MDA from that time.
While the project managers have come and gone, the office of the head of the economic development division has frequently been empty in the past few years, as have the workforce and business intelligence division head offices.
Since his appointment as executive director, Rounsaville has brought in Bill Cork, former director of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, to lead the economic development division. He also has lured Shelton State Community College President Bill Ashley back to Mississippi from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to direct workforce and business intelligence efforts.
Ashley is a veteran of the Mississippi community college system, including as vice president for student affairs at Southwest Mississippi Community College. He holds a master’s degree in business from Delta State University and a graduate certificate in economic development from Mississippi State University.
Rounsaville said Ashley’s experience in the well-regarded workforce program of Alabama would pay dividends for Mississippi.
In addition to getting MDA’s various divisions staffed up, Rounsaville said he has been working to get MDA to coordinate with outside agencies, like the community college system, the Workforce Investment Board and the Department of Employment Security, which oversees the WIN Job Centers.
“I asked Jackie Turner at MDES how we had worked together before, and she said we didn’t really,” Rounsaville said. “That means our system really isn’t customer friendly ... Everybody played ‘Secret Squirrel,’ so they wouldn’t have too many people knowing about the secret projects.
“We have all the pieces, but we need to put them together.”
Even without all the components working in sync very long, Rounsaville said MDA has finalized business recruitments and expansions worth $1.3 billion to the state’s economy so far this year, and expects to be near $1.5 billion by the end of the year.
“That’s just what the state is involved in,” he said. “That’s more than last year, and that was our best year in history.”
While businesses were hurt earlier in the year when COVID-19 precautions led to lockdowns of many businesses, Rounsaville said the state’s economic activity has come back to about 84% of its pre-COVID level.
Mississippi also leads the Southeast in keeping small businesses open, with 12.3% shuttered since the lockdowns went into effect.
Rounsaville said all economic projects can’t and won’t be 1,000 jobs, or even 100 — though those projects won’t be turned away or ignored — but the state needs to support other, smaller projects as well.
He said the state will put more focus on smaller, high-tech businesses, which are likely to grow out of university research programs like the University of Southern Mississippi’s Polymer Research Institute, and from related business incubators or accelerators on or near the campuses.
Businesses like that may be more likely to stay in the state and grow.
“Gov. Reeves wants to be responsible with our tax dollars,” Rounsaville said. “He doesn’t want to just throw money at projects, they need to make sense.”
A delegation from the state went to Asheville, N.C., earlier this year to attend a conference with industrial site selectors, where attendees were told that there’s a lack of inventory of good sites for manufacturers that are looking to expand.
“It’s good that you have a place here ready to go,” Rounsaville said. “If you’re going to compete, you have to be ready.”
Still, having a place to build or move in isn’t the only obstacle to overcome.
“It used to be that you would build a factory and expect people to move and work there,” he said. “It’s not that way anymore. Mississippi has a brain drain, and we need to get serious about keeping our talent here.”
While addressing those issues, Rounsaville still sees success on the horizon.
“It’s been a rocky year, but I see sunshine ahead,” he said.