By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lawmakers are asking the head of Mississippi's economic development agency why the Delta and the southwestern part of the state are often overlooked for major industrial projects.
Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, told members of the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday that industries have their own consultants when it comes to site selection. He said companies may have specific transportation needs. For instance, if there's a need for FedEx, a location near Memphis, Tenn., would be suitable.
"We are driven by the criteria the company has laid out there. It's not politically driven," Swoope said.
Swoope also defended the state's practice of keeping details of projects secret until an agreement has been signed.
"That in itself has gotten us to the table on other deals," Swoope said. "Companies know they can trust us."
Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said he didn't think secrecy was good policy.
"To a certain extent you trust a lot has to be secretive to be able to compete in terms of other states," Johnson said. "I think it's a little bit unrealistic and unfair to expect a committee to say 'OK' and rubber stamp projects that are millions and hundreds of millions in taxpayers' money or bonding authority."
Areas that are predominantly black and are disproportionately poor aren't being considered for major projects, Johnson said. He said lawmakers who represent those areas aren't given an opportunity to provide input on development proposals that are done in secret.
Most large projects approved by the Legislature since 2004 have been in north Mississippi, including the Toyota plant in Blue Springs and Severstal, a steel manufacturer in Columbus. The projects were approved under the Major Economic Impact Act that authorizes the state to spend money on the projects or provide other incentives.
Swoope said several other projects have been approved over the years across the state, but the major economic impact law wasn't used for those. He said a number of projects in south Mississippi benefited from the federal Go Zone incentives and post-Hurricane Katrina federal grants.
"We look at the projects and all available resources, and we will pick the right available mix to land the project regardless of location," Swoope said.
Swoope said there's been economic development activity in the Delta. He said MDA helped retain hundreds of jobs at Baxter Healthcare in Cleveland and he cited the filming in Greenwood of the movie, "The Help."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said Swoope had volunteered to appear before the committee to explain the process MDA uses to bring development projects to the state.
Watson said he'd like to see MDA provide more information to legislators as early in the process as possible when it comes to economic projects, but "I feel they know more about their job than I do."