Jackson's new convention center
By By Sid Salter / syndicated columnist
July 10, 2002
Thoughts while listening to Bernie Ebbers plead the Fifth before Congress …
Can somebody tell me exactly why Jackson needs a $17.5 million "telecommunications conference and training center" given the relative financial implosion of the industry nationally? And that doesn't even begin to address the overwhelming crisis gripping Mississippi's leading telecommunications company WorldCom? Nice timing, isn't it?
If the city of Jackson simply wants Mississippi taxpayers to fund construction of a new 74,000-square-foot convention center for the city through the issuance of $17.5 million in general obligation bonds, they should say so. That would be a much more honest approach than the current charade.
Seven years of hindsight
When the Legislature agreed to the $17.5 million bond issue for the project in 1995, WorldCom was booming and "telecommunications" was the magic word used to convince lawmakers to vote for it. In recent months, the telecommunications industry has floundered with WorldCom now all but foundered in deceit and red ink.
Mississippi's state budget is facing as difficult a time as has been encountered in the last quarter century. Education spending is being cut at all levels. Mississippi can't pay for the Medicaid program is has and yet is still expanding it.
The state is granting huge financial incentives to the Nissan complex in central Mississippi while north and south Mississippians grouse about when their piece of the economic development pie is to be served.
Rural Mississippians as has been our history continue to shop and spend in urban areas only to see their tax dollars remain in those larger cities while money for rural schools and rural roads from the state gets cut.
Can Mississippi justify underwriting construction of a convention center for Jackson given the current economic climate? Depends on who you ask.
It seems that there is a reasonable argument for investing in a convention center in downtown Jackson from the standpoint of urban renewal and for keeping The Capital City viable as a central statewide convention destination.
But the notion that a "telecommunications conference and training center" is going to make any significant difference in the ability of the state or the city to attract telecommunications companies to Jackson or expand existing ones seems indeed a stretch.
It's interesting to note that even in good times, Ebbers said publicly in 1997 that his company wouldn't utilize the proposed facility for training for competitive reasons. Other telecommunications companies were equally blase about the prospects for the facility beyond its functionality as a convention center for Jackson at that time as well.
Let's call it what it is, folks
While it appears that the project is headed for completion, it seems important that Mississippi taxpayers see this project for what it is a project to give Jackson a new convention center. The value of this project as a bell cow for the telecommunications industry is at this juncture negligible.
There is an irony in building a "telecommunications center" at the collapsed WorldCom's doorstep that won't be lost on many. Sectionalism and factionalism have haunted Mississippi politics for decades. Projects such as this one fuel that fire and understandably so.
The Gulf Coast wants a university campus. The Delta needs jobs. Roads needs work across the state. Schools continue to struggle. Is a convention center on par with those needs? Maybe. It's economic development after a fashion. But call it what it is, Jackson. A new convention center nothing more, nothing less.