By STEVEN NALLEY
The Blueprint Mississippi Road Show came to the Hunter Henry Center on Tuesday to survey Starkville leaders on issues affecting the economy in the Starkville area and the state.
The Road Show has already surveyed leaders in nine other Mississippi cities, including Hattiesburg, Greenville, Brookhaven, Laurel and Tupelo, and it will visit 10 more. Mississippi Economic Council leaders in charge of the survey said Starkville’s leaders were optimistic.
For instance, the survey asked how attendees would rank their region’s ability to create jobs through economic development. Among attendees, 71.1 percent called the region “Very competitive,” and 22.22 percent called it “Moderately competitive.” Only 6.67 percent remained to call it “Not so competitive.”
Presenter and MEC President Blake Wilson said that was the most optimistic response they had yet seen from any city on the tour.
“It’s number one in the state; we’ve never seen that before,” Wilson said. “We’ve had no region in the state, including Tupelo, have that kind of response.”
He also said Starkville leaders had more positive responses than others to questions about Mississippi’s ability to create good jobs as a whole, Mississippi’s ability to grow like Georgia and North Carolina have, and whether or not children growing up in Mississippi today would have to leave the state to find good jobs in the future. Sixty percent of attendees said children would find good in-state jobs, and Wilson said that number contrasted with a poll of Mississippians, 62 percent of whom said children would need to leave the state.
“That’s a scary number,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the responses to other questions suggest that Starkville leaders envision the city, as a force for growth in technological economic development, thanks largely to MSU. Two questions were asked about the greatest opportunities for economic growth in the region and state, for instance. “Advanced Manufacturing” held 33.33 percent of the vote for best state opportunity, but for the Starkville area, 46.15 percent voted “start-up tech companies and online businesses” the best opportunity.
“This positive response on technology, this is a message we need to send to the rest of the state,” Wilson said. “You lead with technology. I’m hoping we see the same thing when we get to Oxford. That will send a strong message.”
The survey also included a presentation of four issues at the focus of Blueprint Mississippi: Educational achievement, resource management, economic competitiveness and technology commercialization. Also discussed were a set of issues that cut across those four focus points: community life, racial reconciliation, health care, and infrastructure.
Blueprint Mississippi CEO Hank Bounds, who is also commissioner of higher education for the state, said technology commercialization is particularly important for changing perceptions about Mississippi.
“I want folks to know we’re more than just strong backs,” Bounds said. “I want them to know we have very bright people who can turn our resources into economic opportunities for our state.”
Bounds added that technology commercialization does not mean enabling Mississippi to manufacture more computers. Rather, it means using universities’ technological research to create new economic opportunities.
When all of Blueprint Mississippi’s surveys are finished, Bounds said, they will go to a research group led by MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development David Shaw. The research will extend to MSU, the University of Mississippi, the University of Southern Mississippi, Jackson State University and a national consulting agency.
Before the final Blueprint Mississippi 2011 report is released, Bounds said, the data will pass through the hands of stakeholders in the project, the project council, an advisory council and a steering council. He said everyone involved is placing a premium on finishing the report in October, to help state officials seeking office see issues through their constituents’ eyes.
“We’re burning the midnight oil,” Bounds said. “We are on the verge of coming out of a very difficult time financially. Let’s not miss this opportunity.”
Wilson said when Starkville leaders showed optimism and a desire to focus on technology, they also showed a potential to help the rest of the Mississippi.
“You have a responsibility and an opportunity to lead this state,” Wilson said. “This is the kind of guidance the state needs.”