BILL CRAWFORD: Barksdale is Bryant's first home run
by Bill Crawford
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Mississippi Gov.-elect Phil Bryant, left, listens as Jim Barksdale answers a question as the new interim executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012 in Jackson, Miss. Barksdale, former president and CEO of Netscape Communications Corp., succeeds Leland Speed, right, as chief of the agency that leads the state's economic development efforts. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Incoming Governor Phil Bryant slammed a lead off "home run" before taking office. That's what Bryant called his pending appointment of Jim Barksdale as interim boss of the Mississippi Development Authority.

And, he's right.

Barksdale's got the right stuff to lead MDA. The former Netscape, Fed Ex, and McCaw Cellular executive brings much more than business acumen to the job.

In part he brings what Haley Barbour and outgoing MDA interim chief Leland Speed brought to the table - access to top decision-makers. "There is no business leader in the United States who would not take a telephone call from Jim Barksdale," MEC president Blake Wilson told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

Wilson says he brings more too. "He is a genius. He can accomplish in months at MDA what could require decades for others."

Bryant said Barksdale will review the structure of MDA and help select a permanent boss. Whether that means Barksdale will use his 90 to 120 day interim appointment to reorganize MDA remains to be seen.

Perhaps no agency has been reorganized as much as MDA from its start in 1936 as the State Industrial Commission to the Mississippi Board of Development (1940), the Mississippi Agricultural and Industrial Board (1944), the Mississippi Department of Economic Development (1979), the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (1989), and the Mississippi Development Authority in 2000. Along the way programs, departments, and people were added and subtracted, leaving the agency what Wilson calls a "hodgepodge" today.

In a 2004 presentation to the Legislative Budget Committee I cited 36 grant and loan programs managed by MDA in addition to its popular marketing, recruitment, development, technical assistance, and tourism programs. Add Katrina-related programs and you get a glimpse of what the 300 or so good people at MDA cope with everyday.

So, reorganizing MDA will be no quick task, though Barksdale recommendations will carry great weight.

One more extraordinary thing Barksdale brings is his unmatched, total commitment to Mississippi.

He and his late wife Sally formed the Barksdale Reading Institute and contributed $100 million to improve child literacy in Mississippi. They endowed the Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss. He chaired the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal following Hurricane Katrina and spent endless hours to make its recommendations relevant. He has continued to give and work behind the scenes to improve his state.

The only question raised about Barksdale concerns his lack of professional economic development experience, particularly since former director and professional economic developer Gray Swoope moved to Florida and took chief industry recruiter Griff Salmon with him. However, recruiting talent remains at MDA and Barksdale can easily attract more if necessary.

Great lead off, Governor.

Batter up.

Bill Crawford of Meridian ([email protected]) is a former deputy director at MDA.
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