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Bill Stark 0:06
Well, I'd like to welcome everybody to another LeaderGov podcast. We're really glad to have you today. My name is Bill Stark. I'm one of the cofounders of leader. Gov along with Tim Fenbert in our team is excited to share with you another great topic today on economic development. And at leader gov. As you all know, we love what we do, we're passionate about helping local government leaders thrive and flourish. And we do that through a number of resources, our training, cohort programs, workshops that we provide across the country. And so we're really excited today on this podcast to bring a really needed topic, we think, to the table and that's economic development. And we have a terrific guest. His name is Gerard Gilbert, and he lives in Jackson, Mississippi, or Madison County, Mississippi. And Gerard is historically, for many years, been a technology entrepreneur. And we'll talk a minute about these other things. Gerard, a board member of the Madison County Economic Development Authority for a number of years, and then also a radio host for a statewide radio show in the state of Mississippi. So, all that being said, How you doing, Gerard? Good to see you.

Unknown Speaker 1:26
Hi, Bill, good to see you too. Good to be with you.

Bill Stark 1:28
Yeah, thank you for carving out some time to spend with us today on this really important topic. I know we had a chance to meet several months ago, maybe last fall. And we were talking about some of the economic development successes that you all were having in Central Mississippi, where you are just outside of Jackson. And I tell you, I was really encouraged this blending of the business community, and the local government community to do some really outstanding things for the betterment of our communities, right the workforce, our quality of life. And so I was really jazzed after that. And so we connected and stayed in touch. And I'm really appreciate your taking a few minutes to share. So I want to jump right in. So if you could just give us kind of a quick background on on your history in business, and kind of how you got engaged with the Madison County Economic Development Authority.

Unknown Speaker 2:28
Yes, you're happy to Bill. So as you mentioned, I'm a technology entrepreneur, I had the itch back in 1980 85, actually to start my own business. And that's after spending just under six years with one of the big at the time eight accounting firms. Now it's the big four accounting firms is most people are aware. And that was Arthur Andersen, I worked in the division that became Accenture and focused on IT solutions and IT systems really, really large scale, private sector, Fortune company and public sector systems and saw this PC revolution coming on and sort of get into that business. And I guess the rest is history, we grew that business and kind of followed all the ebbs and flows and the evolution of the industry went to Wall Street raised a fair amount of money for to pursue an acquisition strategy and acquired five companies from 2014 to 2018. And then the board decided it was time to sell the company and monetize our efforts. And so we hired an investment banker went to the markets and ended up closing a transaction selling the company to a slightly larger version of our company. And that was was completed in January 2019. stayed on for about five months, per their request in was overseeing their acquisition strategy. And then they had some change and went from being a public company to a private company decided that they were going to put a pause on acquisitions no longer needed my services and ended up where I am today. I'm hosting a statewide radio show always been fairly interested in politics and the political realm. This is this is kind of an outlet that focuses a lot, especially on state politics. And so I've been doing that about a year and a half 10 to one every day mid days with Gerard Gilbert. I joined the Madison County Economic Development Authority back in 2018. And in Mississippi, each county has a board of supervisors and the supervisors in Madison County where I reside. We have this Madison County Economic Development Authority each supervisor appoints a member to that organization and then the president at the time when the term reserved for the at large member has the has the right to appoint an at large member, I'm actually the at large member for the county for the entire county as opposed to representing, if you will, a specific district within the county. But it's a board of seven. And our job is to foster economic development here throughout the county of Madison. I've served as the board chairman for a year and a half during my four years. I just rolled off of that. But we've had some incredible successes. And I think to a great extent bill is because there is a concerted effort and a strong interest on the part of the community. So leaves, municipalities within the county, the County Board of Supervisors, the citizens in general, and certainly those of us who serve on that board, we're pretty serious about developing our economy, I should point out that Madison County is a bit unique in the state of Mississippi, Mississippi is widely known regrettably, for being a rather impoverished state. But the county of Madison has a per capita and a household income that actually exceeds the national average by a decent amount. It is the only of the 82 counties in Mississippi with that distinction. So it's a different, it's kind of a different setting, if you will. And so there's a lot of interests, as you can imagine from potential businesses to move into Madison County, they're aware of this. Yeah. But overall, I've enjoyed my time, I hope stay on for a longer period of time, I guess it's fair to say I was asked to join because of my building a business in the county and having a lot of experience in and economic development, I guess, as an entrepreneur.

Bill Stark 6:53
Yeah. Well, I appreciate that background I wanted to ask you about I know that in your part of the state, there's a fairly significant auto influence automotive industry influence. And, and Amazon, of course, is has made commitments there in your area. And you know, today I really wanted to explore some of the pluses and the minuses, right, that looks what's going on that that's worked well between private industry and local government, in terms of economic development, and what are some things that haven't worked well. But I want to start out with a kind of a success story. And if you would just share a little bit about ms at 55. That's interstate 55. For folks that don't know, that goes from Chicago to New Orleans, I guess. And but it's ms at 55. And what you all did there to spur economic development, in general, just touch on it briefly, cuz it's a great story. And then I want to ask you about kind of a loss kind of a missed opportunity for economic development there in the States, I'd like you to share if you don't mind. Sure,

Unknown Speaker 7:54
sure. So Ms. 55, is sort of the brand that our board adopted to to label this, what we call a mega sites, what we called it prior to the MSF 55. But we were looking for something a little catchy, something we could brand, something we could promote market. And we thought that made sense. And it also, of course, captures in the name, the fact that we're just a stone's throw away from a major interstate system, the interstate 55, which, as you indicated, goes all the way up to Chicago and further south as well down to essentially to the coast. But there was a decision made by the board economic development board a few years ago to acquire this land. So the way the way our funding works is a percentage. I can't remember the exact amount but a percentage of the property tax millage, that is the primary source of income to the county to operate the county to provide county services. There's a piece of that it's carved out in accordance with county county policy county standards. This this came about decades ago, that funds our group, the mask and Economic Development Authority. So what we basically do is we're we're looking for land, honestly, we're looking for land that we can acquire, that we then can turn into productive use for possible location of business of private enterprise. So we had this idea this this parcel that we really, really liked, that we ended up having to negotiate a course as you do with all the property owners. And we called it for the longest time the mega site, I guess, for lack of a better term, but we recently as I say within the last six months, rebranded it to this MSA 55. But we also felt that rather than just having this raw land, and I guess in entertaining prospective suitors kind of asking them to just envision what your building would look like on this land that's that's in Mississippi is, you know is when I say raw land, it's pretty raw land, we got lots of big stand of lots of pine trees, hardwoods and a lot of underbrush. And there's also it's a little bit rolling we have we have to deal with water flow and, and sort of natural collection areas that are issues, of course. So you can't really get the picture that like you can when it's finished, and looks like it's ready to go. And the best analogy I think I can make would be when you're thinking about a private residence, you know, you've heard lots of real estate advisors say when your house looks like it's ready to move in and live in right now, even if you're living in it currently, that often sells better than just a, you know, a big open shell. And we sort of apply that same logic. And so we made the investment. With some of the funding, we get to really clean this site up and prep it such that you don't have to think too hard to see what your building would look like on it. So we we worked with landscape architects and engineers and planners to really clean this site up and leave a lot of the beautiful old pine trees and hardwoods there, but more more sparsely separated. And then we cleaned and grubbed everything underneath we installed a really nice two way Boulevard with a neutral grand ground and it installed is really nice looking ms at 55 sign I think it may have sent that to you landscape it nicely. We've got our own well and water supply that's underway. We've got we've got the cell phone companies all built in towers and so forth. But our to right, yes, exactly. And I was gonna say, honestly, Bill that that we have learned, I certainly have learned I think people have been in economic development longer than I have get that but what I've learned is just how critical it is to have that electrical and that energy infrastructure and persuading our power company, our local utility here to make that investment sort of betting on the future and and really outfit it with top notch plentiful abundant electricity right there near the site. That was key. And that was critical, because so many of the suitors come in and that's one of the big questions is, can we get the necessary power we need for whatever kind of operation we're running. So bottom line is, I think between the the actual site, the site look, and the site presentation to power, the access to the interstate, we have rail, the boulevards, the signage, the branding, I mean, all that really has contributed to the success of that site. And happy to report that we just launched the grand opening and been in the works about a year and a half of an Amazon fulfillment center, that's 700,000 square feet, in terms of its square footage on one floor, but it's three, four facilities. So you can do the math there. And it's up and running with 1500 employees, we thought we were gonna have 1000. And we learned last week at our meeting that they've hired 1500. And it's an impressive and of course, that becomes a springboard for other prospects to see that. It's kind of like the old days, I remember that, that when McDonald's was building restaurants all over the country, the Wendy's in the Burger King strategy was just open up near them. So they would let McDonald's do all the investment in the site selection. Oh, whatever McDonald's is their their formula works good. We're gonna go near them. So

Bill Stark 13:40
yeah. You know, as you as you think about that project, were there any naysayers? Or were there cities in the county or county officials? That didn't get it? Or were hard to bring along? And what was that? Did you have that tension? And what was it like because listening to our podcast today, of course, we've got city managers, county managers, and probably economic development directors on and, and they know a lot of these things you're talking about, but I just really want you to share, you know, you have this sort of private industry perspective that local government people do not have. And kind of jumping to a different topic, really, which is, what are those from your perspective, those those ingredients? And where do you see local governments kind of falling short where they might need to get a different perspective or a different motivation? Where How can we? How could you suggest local government maybe adjust the way they think about economic development?

Unknown Speaker 14:45
Yeah, I think it's good question and I have thought about that. I think what really made this happen is that everybody understood the potential risk, right? So you're making an investment and you're buying a bunch of land as we did several 100 acres, and then we were making significant investment and cleaning it up and prepping it and preparing it the way we did. And then of course, working with a power company, and they took a risk. So I would kind of describe it as a shared risk, if you will, we understood, we all can benefit here, if we're successful, but we all got to share in the risk here. We can't just just hang that on one part. Yeah,

Bill Stark 15:28
who lead? Because that's a tough conversation, right? You know, you Hey, God, we upside downside, somebody kind of needs to be a salesman, right and step in and really promote this thing. Who who did that? And is that kind of a skill that people on the board that facilitated that?

Unknown Speaker 15:49
Yeah, I think that effort was primarily led by and we could credit our executive director, who is excellent. He's extremely aggressive. And he's he's, he's got a vision. He's a visionary, that's critical, if you're in this this line of work, obviously. And I think he very successfully persuaded the board, and others that this really made sense. And, and he also worked very closely with the utility company to make that happen to make that a reality. And so all those pieces, I think, came together. But he led the effort, the board certainly was supportive of him, gave him the resources he needed. And I assured him that when we started getting contacted by prospects that we would be would have the assets and the resources, he needed to pull them across the finish line. And that really came about when when Amazon came calling, they were aware of it, they can call and they made a selection. And then I got to share this because it's something I'm very proud of is when we had the grand opening of the Amazon facility. This is about six weeks ago, before the ceremony started, I happen to be visiting with the individual who is the main primary manager of the site. And it seems from what I can tell his role in the company is to launch these sites, get them online, get them up and running. And then he moves on to another one. And I asked him what he thought about the site in general. And we were standing right at the doorstep of this pristine, fantastic Amazon facility, looking about the several 100 acres. And he told me this, I've been to many, many Amazon fulfillment centers, I'm quoting him now he said this, by far is the best setting of any of them. That's just not something. Honestly, Bill, we expect to hear in Mississippi, you're no Mississippi and we normally don't expect to hear ourselves on the top of a good list. And I said, Well, this is what our goal was this work. So I'm so gratified to hear that. But you have so many people involved. It's also we got to point out that we also made the investment took the risk, we hired professional marketing organization to help us really promote and produce materials, video and written materials, printed materials, etc. That also went a long way.

Bill Stark 18:13
Yeah, yeah. You know, you also mentioned the other day when we were chatting about this over reliance on tax incentives. And I recall, you had a couple of thoughts on that that might be helpful to folks, and maybe other people are saying this as well right now.

Unknown Speaker 18:29
Yeah, I think it's safe to say that if you dig back a few years ago, certainly within 10 years, that tax concessions, tax abatements, tax incentives, typically were the dealmakers or breakers, when a prospect was trying to decide on where to locate a business. It doesn't matter if it's a plant, a distribution facility, retail facility, what have you, that was a big factor in that. But what we've seen certainly in the last three to four years is that that doesn't even enter the conversation, honestly. And in fact, by far and away at the top, which just really exceeds any other issues is availability of qualified workforce. I don't think that comes as a surprise to a lot of people. But there's another area where we made a concerted effort to work with the community colleges to work with the cities to work with our state resources there. We have a great organization called Accelerate Mississippi that specializes in workforce development and really has some great programs for that. We have this facility in North Mississippi called the communiversity. And it is a joint effort between a community college and the local private businesses designed to train their people work with them on on tailoring programs, to prepare staff to or individuals to be stabbed and go to work with these guns. So they're getting specific training, where when they go to the economy, they're ready to hit the streets running. That's what they want by far. That's the top item and Conversation?

Bill Stark 20:01
No, you You also mentioned just a moment ago, this idea of, of, of hiring someone to help kind of tell your story and do some marketing. We often see me local governments have PIOs that are very talented. And they're good at communicating on Facebook press releases in this kind of thing, I think for, it's safe to say a lot of cities and counties are now stepping up their game in terms of branding, and really being able to tell their story. But could you just kind of share a little bit about how you all told your story, you know, the quality of life statistics around housing, the safety, education, all those things that you all had to really organize to tell an effective story? Could you just share a bit about how you all express to you work to other people?

Unknown Speaker 20:50
Yeah, you know, I think probably the high level, what I would say is we tried to showcase the best of our area. And that's really what it was about, we want you to see the best, because so often people that haven't been in Mississippi, as I think you will know, Bill, they have a misconception about our state. And as many of whom, almost all of whom have never been here, they've not experienced it firsthand, when they get here, they say, gee, this isn't what I thought it was. We're trying to dispense with that before they ever get to us. So they don't mark us off the list. We want to be included, and for consideration. And so I think we put together some materials, and most recently, a video is kind of done in an interesting sort of Pac Man thing, believe it or not, that was was just really, really well done that I think showcases the community, the MS at 55 sites, specifically, our workforce, our people, our culture, the diversity of our culture, the quality of life here, it did all the above with statistics and data where we actually, we actually come out looking better than a lot of other areas that I think without digging into it, or thought by people out on the outside, no way you could compete with these guys. And then they find out well, yeah, you're actually doing better than they are. So that's been very valuable in our efforts. And I'm pleased to report our pipeline right now is excellent. Our board meets monthly, like a lot of boards do. And we review that pipeline, among other things, of course, but it's very exciting where we are as mega size can be a big hit. No doubt that.

Bill Stark 22:33
Well, you mentioned something earlier about when you were mentioning workforce development that caught my ear. And you mentioned all the different workforce agencies and organizations in the state and working with the cities and other entities to help do their part to bring about this workforce that's needed. And it just brought to mind the word teamwork. And it sounds like you all have really begun to not crack the code but but really embrace this idea of it's a team. And it requires everybody pitching in, you mentioned risk shared risk earlier. That's that's kind of a team thing. And so I just wonder, again, for the local government leaders listening, you know, how can they go about creating that kind of team or that that what what advice would you have for them in terms of reaching out to constituents, business businesses, other boards, other entities? How important is that, and the whole mix

Unknown Speaker 23:37
is incredibly important. And I think what you're probably gonna encounter is some degree of naysaying, right. Just just unwillingness to acknowledge and accept that this is a successful strategy. And so, what what I would recommend to anybody is, take a look at the people that are doing this successfully. What what's their formula? What are they doing, emulate that? I mean, if it's work and you want to be like them, right and as true in life in general, our executive director came from the Golden Triangle area of Mississippi, Northeast Corridor, Columbus, Starkville area, and and they had kind of a regionalized economic development group. That's where our executive director came from, but the present Executive Director, whom he works for, he's kind of legendary. He's been featured on 60 minutes for the work he's done with respect to building the economy and economic development efforts in that area in that region. That's where this communiversity is located. He just landed a really, really nice big deal to manufacture specialized vehicles that work long shore it's a company that's, that's from Europe that has no presence in the US and their very first presence in the US. US is going to be in October Hawk County, Mississippi. So that's a big deal. But these are really high quality, very aggressive type A personality people that are good at persuading people. And they're good at putting teams together. And they're, and they don't have any issue giving credit where credit is due, they just want to see results and get things done. And, and I mean, they're just completely dedicated and committed to it's not something you do part time, you're, you're gonna get beat by the people that are doing it full time, if you're doing it part time. And it's kind of an afterthought, it's got to be front and center, I think we've promoted that attitude here in our county and our communities. And that's been key.

Bill Stark 25:42
Yeah, I just really enamored by this idea of, you know, overcoming the negatives, being a sales person, you know, pushing through these barriers and forming teams and sharing risk. And a lot of those things aren't natural. in the government space, you know, these are very, kind of aggressive marketing type ideas. Now, teamwork is a universal idea, of course, but I just really liked the way that you all have kind of coalesced around a vision, and this team idea and sort of shared risk. But I do believe it starts with a vision. But having a visionary leader who says this is where we need to be. And I guess our encouragement today to local government leaders listening is, is to be bold, and to have a firm vision that you're committed to and excited about and motivated. And to the degree that you can muster up, you know, some sales, energy, positive sales, energy around your community, and your your facilities and land and so forth. And you know, all the better. We see it, of course, a lot in the private industry. But but it's feels different, of course, in the public sector. I guess it is a little bit, but maybe it doesn't have to be. You know, I mentioned this. One last thing I mentioned this, the story earlier that where there was kind of a missed opportunity of economic development in the state of Mississippi that you were certainly aware of maybe connected to I don't know, and it had to do with the Mississippi flag. As we kind of wind down could you just share with us, I hate to end on us kind of a missed opportunity story. But maybe we can learn from missed opportunity of leveraging the flag topic.

Unknown Speaker 27:36
Yeah, well, the state of Mississippi, of course, historically, has always had to overcome some of the stigmas and misconceptions. I mean, I encountered that in business, frankly. But I gotta tell you, it always ended positively. Because when I was going to Wall Street raising money, I would always pose the question at some point during the during the pitches, is there any reservations about making an investment in a Mississippi based company, to people that have never been to Mississippi probably never met a Mississippi and not one time that I ever get a no to that you know, it every person is what No, we invest in good management, good companies, good value propositions, which is what it should be. And that's the same here. I world is, I think such that there is fear, there's no doubt there's fear in the private sector, for any kind of retribution that might come about based on certain moves. They make that that might be in their best interest from a business perspective. But they're, they're considered some sort of social conflict, shall we say? So our flag was it was a stigma that we had to deal with in some economic development efforts, because it included embedded in the flag was the Confederate flag, Confederate battle flag. And that was an issue. And really can't talk about specifically that but but there have been cases where that was a reservation that would that was caused reluctance. And, and we don't know if that was the driving reason, but it was an issue that came up in our recruiting efforts. And so we knew that, you know, we got we got to do away with that, so that that's just not a hindrance. So fortunately, in 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd situation, finally, there was enough support. There had been support already from many of our state leaders, but there was enough support to get that done. And the citizens of Mississippi went to the ballot to choose a replacement flag. And that is, is something that I think is presented in very much a good good light. And, and we, we highlight that we focus on that I'm kind of sorry that we missed the opportunity. I think I shared this with you that I told our state leaders that, you know, we really ought to promote this deal, we really ought to show the nation if not the world, hey, it's new Mississippi, we're not stuck 200 years ago, like a lot of people think we are this changing. And this flag, I think, exemplifies that. We need to promote that for economic development and to track citizens and maybe get some of our best talent count out of our universities to stay here and make their homes here. And I felt like we missed that opportunity. It's not that you couldn't do it now. But the reality is, most people in this country don't know we changed our flag. It never got any fanfare on the national scene. It did here. Of course, it never really got the attention. I can also share this with you know, and that happened in the 20 2011 presidential election, you know that more people voted for the flag than they did for President. More, there are people who literally on their ballot did not vote for a presidential candidate. I don't know the reason. But they selected a flag option that's directly drawn, the Secretary of State has been on my program any time. So wow. That's how big an issue that was now that, are there people that are mad about that? Well, sure, are there. But overwhelmingly, our population, I think, is pleased with where we are. And it's just something I think we can use to show Hey, come to Mississippi, this is the new Mississippi, I wish we would have capitalized on that for sort of optimum benefit when it happened two years ago, but it's not too late. And and the people we talked to, I promise you they know it that we're not stuck in the past, like, often a reputation would hold that precedes us. But when they get here and they see it, honestly, yeah, this all makes sense. What you don't have to answer is this all looks great drawer, but you still got this old flag to deal with anymore.