Friday, September 26, 2008

A time to regroup

The October issue of Alliance Insight, a science and technology newsletter of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development, has a story about the new spirit of cooperation in the Gulf Coast when it comes to aerospace.

The link is not yet available to the newsletter, but come back to spot in October and I'll provide you with one. I recommend taking a look at the story. But in the interest of full disclosure, I wrote it, so I may be partial.

Briefly, there's been a lot of aerospace activity in the Gulf Coast region for years, but the competition for the Air Force tanker project brought this region's political and economic development officials together, perhaps like never before.

Needless to say, the folks in Mobile who stood to gain a major aircraft manufacturing plant and 1,500 jobs were the most upset when the Pentagon decided to punt the project to the next administration. But surrounding areas in Florida and Mississippi, who expect to get some of the suppliers, were also unhappy with the decision as well. This region has come to realize that, sure, they compete with one another for projects, but a win for one in the aerospace field can spill over. And branding the region as an aerospace hotspot helps all of them. Let's face it, it's getting harder and harder to be heard in today's world.

But don't think for a moment that this is the first time folks in this region have put aside the turf mentality to move toward a common goal. There have been other ad hoc efforts here and there, as well as more permanent ventures.

One of the earliest was the Gulf Coast Regional Chamber Coalition, which resulted from a 1999 meeting of about 150 business and economic leaders from the Central Gulf Coast. It has six members from chambers in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, South Mississippi, Mobile and Pensacola.

In 2000, another group - this time tourism officials - created SouthCoastUSA, an organization that promotes the entire region as a great place to visit. Louisiana members are Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Houma, New Orleans, and Louisiana Northshore/St. Tammany Parish; Mississippi’s members are Mississippi West Coast and Ocean Springs; Alabama members are Mobile and Gulf Shores/Orange Beach; and Florida members are Pensacola and the Beaches of South Walton.

Just before Hurricane Katrina, the University of New Orleans held a meeting of universities with interests in this region, to see if they could come up with a way to collaborate more effectively. There was a second meeting after Katrina, but what's happened to that effort since then I don't know. Still, the mindset to work together was there.

But those multi-state efforts are rare. Far more common is a lineup of counties within one state. In Mississippi there's the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development, which involves counties in South Mississippi and is designed to promote that region. It's been around since 2000, and promotes that area's science and technology efforts. Far newer is the Gulf Coast Aerospace and Defense Coalition, which involves three Northwest Florida counties.

And then there’s the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor - likely the way you got to this blog in the first place. It spans a four-state region between New Orleans and Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and focuses exclusively on aerospace activities in this region. It includes a reference section, a news and jobs section. Oh yes, again full disclosure - I'm involved in that project.

I've been around this block long enough to know that regional efforts have been discussed for years, and what often happens is that everyone agrees it's a great idea, then usually that's about as far as it goes. But that's understandable. Everyone has so much on their plate. And then there's the local constituents factor: They wonder, and with good reason, why spend time on something that might help a neighbor? The short answer is, what's good for the region is good for every part of the region.

When I was the business editor of the Mobile Press-Register in the 1990s, we produced a quarterly magazine called the Business Register. It was unusual in that it covered the region between Fort Walton Beach to South Mississippi. It was well received - and to this day I have the messages that were sent to me when we came out with that first issue. Folks said it was about time. But, in fact, it was ahead of its time and it ceased publication after two years when the paper opted to pursue other ventures.

But that was back in 1997, and a lot has changed in 10 years. The global economy and advances in technology have put one heck of a lot of players on the field. Everyone is competing with everyone else to get heard. And in this environment, it’s nearly impossible for any single economic development group to get noticed. That reality will force us all to find new groups, new alliances, new ways of getting noticed.

This is, clearly, the time to regroup.

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