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Economic officials put industry, tort reform atop state’s ‘to do’ list

Boosting southwest Mississippi’s appeal as a location forindustry and urging tort reform measures took center stage as stateand area economic development officials met Wednesday inBrookhaven.

Wednesday’s meeting was part of the Opportunity Tour by newMississippi Development Authority Executive Director Bob Rohrlackand others in the economic development arm of state government.Rohrlack told southwest Mississippi officials that MDA wants to beaggressive and responsive in addressing their economic developmentneeds.

“We’re hear to learn what you want and to help make thathappen,” Rohrlack said.

Area officials questioned MDA leaders about a perception thatsouthwest Mississippi was not attractive as a site for newindustry. Answers were sought on how to improve the situation.

Rohrlack said having available land is the first priority.

MDA representatives said successful communities have a strongpublic and private leadership base. One area that southwestMississippi is at a disadvantage is that it doesn’t have largepopulation centers that some other areas have.

Mike Larsen, director of the MDA administration, complimentedarea officials on the development of a 10-county regionalpartnership to encourage and promote economic development.

“I think that’s a real good step you have taken,” Larsensaid.

Area officials were optimistic the partnership would paydividends.

“We’re pulling together to make our numbers look better,” saidClovis Reed, Claiborne County administrator. “And given half achance, we’re going to catch up with the rest of the state.”

Some comments were directed toward the new Nissan plant and thelocation of Tier 1 suppliers north of Interstate 20. MDArepresentatives said Nissan wants Tier 1 suppliers within an hourof the Canton plant, but Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers would belocated across the state.

Tort reform also got attention Wednesday. High lawsuit verdictshave prompted some insurance carriers to not offer malpracticeinsurance for physicians, and some businesses will not send theirtrucks to certain counties because of lawsuit fears.

“That’s not economic development. That’s un-development,” saidAlvin Smith, a Brookhaven insurance agent.

Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said the ridiculous verdicts werecontributing to the state’s “blackeye.”

“Sometimes I think we’re self-destructing one verdict at atime,” the senator said.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett said there are indications thattort reform measures could be successful in the upcominglegislative session.

“I think our best prospects for tort reform will be this year,”Barnett said.

Hyde-Smith said there is momentum for tort reform, but a publicoutcry is needed for it to happen.

“That’s the only thing that’s going to change this, in myopinion,” she said. “This session is the time to scream, and screamloud.”

MDA officials also gave an update on the organization’s agendafor the 2002 legislative session. Those include refining someexisting programs, such as the state Capital Improvements Revolving(CAP) loan program to make interest rates more attractive tocommunities and expand the program to make recreational andathletic facility project eligible for loan funding.

Rohrlack touted the Advantage Mississippi Initiative as a way toimprove the state’s economic development opportunities.

“It’s flexible community by community and project by project,”Rohrlack said.

Rohrlack said the state is seeing some exciting times in thearea of economic development. He encouraged partnerships on thestate and local level and officials work to make sure Mississippiis not trailing or lagging behind other states.

“Economic development is not a destination. It’s a process,”Rohrlack said. “We’ve all got be involved in that process.”