“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”
Charles Dickens’ opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities could just as easily be describing 21st century Mississippi today as 19th century Europe.
What does the best of times look like? Our state is changing before our eyes and modernizing to the betterment of our citizens. We have a vibrant economy that is educating its young people and providing previously unheard-of opportunities. We are building some of the world’s most popular cars in Canton and Blue Springs. In Batesville, they are using advanced technology to build cutting-edge composite materials and on our Coast Mississippians are building the next generation of ships to keep America safe. Our graduation rates have never been higher and the national academic scores for our children are increasing at the fastest rate in the nation.
Quantitatively the numbers are positive. Since 2000, Mississippi’s real GDP has grown by 17 percent. Today Mississippi has its lowest rate of unemployment ever. We are often ranked as one of the best states in the country to start and run a small business.
I also know this from firsthand experience. In 1994, I was part of a group of Mississippi businessmen who founded a new bank in South Mississippi. An idea hatched on a back porch has blossomed into a bank with 500 employees and more than 3 billion in assets. The First is headquartered in Hattiesburg and continues to be a great option for small businesses who need capital to expand. Powered by Mississippians for Mississippians. Our agricultural and forestry industry is a growth engine. Family farms in Mississippi nourish their communities and our country. Family farms in our state compete and win in national and international markets. Many have grown large enough to be called “industrial ag." I love traveling around the state, seeing “industrial ag” in action. It’s how we feed, clothe and house a big world!
Finally, Mississippi still represents an incredible way of life for its people. We are the home of the blues, the best fried catfish on the planet, and communities that get together every Friday to watch football and on Sunday to worship.
What about the other city; what does the worst of times look like? Despite the recent progress noted, Mississippi is still at or near the bottom on so many key measurements: education, income, our citizens' lifespan to name a few. We have problems that are well documented and have been discussed for years. Failing primary schools, uncompetitive rural internet, crumbling infrastructure; problems that require taxpayer investment. While Mississippi grew 17 percent, the U.S. economy grew 80 percent since 2000. Mississippi non-farm payrolls are up less than 1 percent over two decades. The U.S. has seen payrolls grow by 14 percent. Millennials are getting their world-class higher education in our collegiate system, then leaving our state faster than any other state in the union.
One of those millennials, my son, graduated from Ole Miss last year and started work in Chicago. I told him to be safe; it’s the murder capital after all. I was amazed when he showed me that the property crime rate in Jackson is over 50 percent higher than it is in Chicago.
In this second Mississippi, too many Mississippians live paycheck to paycheck and have missed meals this week. Too many of our small towns are eroding and not providing the fundamentals for young people to raise their families in the town they grew up in. The second Mississippi has population growth that is stagnating while it’s Sun Belt neighbors are growing. Its population growth compares closer with Connecticut and Illinois which are losing population. My career required me to live in both Connecticut and Illinois. I completely understand why both would lose population; the business environment in both is terrible and unwelcoming. For Mississippi though to not gain population defies common sense and should not be happening.
We must cease to have two Mississippis. We can build on recent progress. We’ll forward that progress with investment. I’ve been a professional investor for 30 years and what Mississippi needs today is an investment in our undervalued people and resources.
My son, I’m happy to say, is in the process of moving back home and investing in Mississippi by starting his own business. He sees the opportunities here and believes the future is brighter here. As an older entrepreneur, I’m investing in the timber industry; it’s one of our largest industries already. We are growing 30 percent more trees than we can process. All that lumber is in demand both near in booming Sun Belt states where housing starts are exploding and far in export markets. We already have the expertise in the forestry and lumber industry. The timber industry in this state has been hurt by well-meaning but simply bad government policy, causing a crippling oversupply that is destroying many people’s retirement savings. Investment is coming thou and free markets will correct what the government has put down.
What do we need to do to make the best of times a reality for all Mississippians? It’s simple: close the income gap between Mississippi earnings and the rest of the country. In my opinion, the income gap is the biggest issue we face. Taxpayer dollars to fund improvements don’t exist if working Mississippian’s are not earning more. Closing the income gap with other states requires greater investment both from us the in-state business community and from out of state. How do we do that? Business-friendly policies of lower tax rates, reduced government and regulation in the everyday lives of citizens will allow investment to thrive.
We are headed in the right direction but have a long way to go. Our economic development folks play a big part and are selling this story each day with success. But they need help from our elected officials. Elected officials have a platform in which they can be heard. They must use their platform to promote opportunities in the private sector. There are opportunities available here to grow private businesses and earn above-average returns, but we must compete for those investment dollars and elected officials have a big role to play in that competition. Am I advocating job expansion and greater commitment to our growth from our elected officials? Yes. We have the available resources and a labor force eager to work. Those resources and labor are on sale! I’ll continue to invest here, and I urge you to do the same we will all win.