From Mississippi Development Guide 2023

‘We Learned Not to Underestimate Ourselves’

AWS win showed MDA Director that Mississippi can fast-track big projects.

MDA Executive Director Bill Cork and delegates from Mississippi visited hago Automotive during a recent business mission to the Benelux region of Europe.
Photos courtesy of MIssissippi Development Authority


ill Cork has spent a lifetime working to improve the economic condition and the built environment for people. From serving in the Marines to overseeing master-planned developments in urban environments, he has championed free market principles and sought the highest and best possible use of physical space.

That’s why it’s not surprising that Mississippi has turned over leadership of its state economic development agency, the Mississippi Development Authority, to him.

In the following interview, MDA Executive Director Bill Cork explains how Mississippi won its biggest investment project ever and how it plans to keep pushing for more sustainable development in the future.

Helping businesses to get up and running quickly is an often-underrated asset in a state. How does Mississippi help companies with speed to market?

BILL CORK: Governor Tate Reeves and the Mississippi Legislature adopt pro-business policies that reduce permitting timelines and red tape, in turn helping companies get to work quicker so they can get products to consumers in record time. MDA and its economic development partners provide site selection assistance, infrastructure grants and streamlined permitting processes. We are particularly proud of our Site Development Grant Program, which assists our local and regional economic development partners in preparing sites in industrial parks so companies can quickly set up shop. Essentially, the “behind the scenes” work and all the due diligence is done proactively so sites are prepped and necessary infrastructure is already in place. This program has been tremendously successful and has been key to landing some major deals in recent years. We also offer various tax incentives and financial assistance to reduce initial costs for businesses, and our partnerships with educational institutions align training and industry needs, also facilitating quicker hiring and operational readiness. 

Bill Cork“Mississippi has an impressive portfolio of business incentives, which is headlined by our new MFLEX program that provides the exemption of state tax liabilities.” 
Bill Cork, Executive Director, Mississippi Development Authority


Can you quantify the cost differential of operating in Mississippi for most business owners and operators?

CORK: Mississippi has an impressive portfolio of business incentives, which is headlined by our new MFLEX program that provides the exemption of state tax liabilities. That program has been recognized by major site selection publications as one of the top state incentives in the country. Mississippi is also recognized regularly for its affordability. Our low operating costs and affordable utility rates are especially attractive to businesses. Additionally, a dollar goes a lot further in Mississippi than in many other states. Mississippi’s affordable cost of living ensures we have more money in our wallets. It’s also a prime reason we are a top destination for retirees. 

Mississippi is now setting money aside for site development. Does the state have a specific goal for how many sites it wants to prepare for industrial development?

CORK: The state currently has 32 sites that have been prioritized for site preparation. These sites have been vetted extensively prior to being selected for funding through the Site Development Grant Program, which is funded by the Mississippi Legislature each year. This program is yielding significant results as companies are selecting them to locate or expand their operations due to the infrastructure that is already in place and the fact that they can turn dirt and quickly get to work. Additional sites are being rolled into this equation as the shovel-ready sites are taken off the table by companies acquiring them for new investments. This program has paid dividends for Mississippi and has led to our state being seen as a leader in site development.

How did Mississippi win the $10 billion AWS project?

CORK: The greater Jackson metropolitan area is positioned well for tech investment due to its access to affordable, high-capacity power and an abundance of untapped dark fiber. Also, the region is home to multiple colleges and universities, which provides companies like AWS with access to a talented pipeline of workers to fill these high-tech jobs. Entergy Mississippi’s ability to supply AWS with the power needed for the data centers, our convenient access several interstate highways and an international airport, our fast-permitting timelines, affordable cost of living, competitive labor rates and business-friendly environment also worked in our favor and put us a step ahead as we worked to bring this monumental project to Central Mississippi.  

What lessons did you learn from going through that competitive site selection process?

CORK: We learned not to underestimate ourselves. Rural states can attract large hyper-scale data center projects if they have high-capacity, affordable power available at sites in urban areas where an adequate labor force is present. Also, we found the power of relationships is very important. AWS was five years in the making, and the relationships between key staff at AWS, Entergy and the state remained intact and on excellent terms. That undoubtedly kept this project on track from conception to incentive negotiations, and ultimately, leading to one of the largest announcements in Mississippi’s history.

Energy is growing in importance as a site selection factor. How is Mississippi situated in that regard?

CORK: Mississippi is home to four top electric utility companies that invest in power generation and put an emphasis on grid reliability. In addition, these companies invest in site preparation to ensure shovel-ready sites throughout the state can adequately meet the power demand of new and expanding companies on a fast-timeline. 

The Mississippi government has invested a lot into removing regulatory red tape. How has that helped your state’s competitive position with businesses?

CORK: The Legislature’s efforts to remove regulatory red tape has had several positive impacts on the state’s competitiveness. For starters, it has made it easier for new businesses to set up operations in the state, which has subsequently attracted businesses in a variety of sectors looking for an easier way to operate. It also has provided more flexibility for our existing businesses looking to expand because they aren’t bogged down by excessive regulations. Less red tape also means more streamlined processes and reduced bureaucratic hurdles, which allows businesses to get necessary approvals faster so they can get products to market faster. The reduction of regulatory red tape has enabled Mississippi to punch above its weight and compete successfully to bring new domestic and international investments and jobs to the people of our state. 

MDA Executive Director Bill Cork and MDA International Trade Office staff attend Gov. Tate Reeves’ inauguration in January.MDA Executive Director Bill Cork and MDA International Trade Office staff attend Gov. Tate Reeves’ inauguration in January.

How does MDA partner with local and regional economic development organizations to help companies grow and find locations for expansion?

CORK: MDA collaborates with local and regional economic development organizations to provide a unified support system for businesses, ensuring they receive comprehensive assistance -- from the initial inquiries to the actual establishment phases of the project. We also pool resources, like workforce information and local incentives, and we partner with local and regional EDOs to help companies find the optional locations for their operations. This can entail providing information of available properties, infrastructure availability, zoning and other critical factors that influence site selection. We like to say that economic development is a team sport, and the Mississippi team steps up to the plate every day so we can bring new opportunities to our communities. 

Worker training has never been more critical than it is right now. What is Mississippi doing to make sure it continues to produce the workforce skill sets needed by the employers of today and tomorrow?

CORK: AccelerateMS is the state’s workforce training agency and a crucial component of the state’s strategy to enhance workforce development and ensure that the skill sets of our workforce align with the needs of modern employers. The Accelerate team coordinates efforts across various agencies, our network of universities and community colleges and our industry partners to create a cohesive and effective workforce development system. Through the support of the Mississippi Legislature, the state also is able to commit resources and tools to employers as they work to train and upskill workers so they are prepared to take on the in-demand jobs of tomorrow. 

What is your state’s best-kept secret?

CORK: Mississippi’s engineering and advanced technology environment is one of the most sophisticated around, and that is evidenced by several impressive stats. For example, Mississippi is ranked No. 5 nationally for its supercomputing power. We are home to several supercomputing centers, including those at Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi. The Department of Defense has two ultramodern supercomputing research center facilities at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg. There are more engineering Ph.D.’s per capita in Vicksburg than any other city in the U.S. 

Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is home to the Naval Oceanography and Meteorology Command Center, which has the largest concentration of oceanographers and climate experts in the world in one place.  Stennis Space Center is also the home of NASA’s largest rocket propulsion test site, and for more than 60 years, it has been integral to our nation’s space program. Today, Stennis and its tenants serve the national and commercial space industries by preparing to return humans to the Moon and eventually to Mars. The Gulf Coast Region is home to a robust commercial space cluster. We have too many “best-kept secrets” to narrow it down to one. But simply put, some of the most sophisticated, high-tech work done anywhere in the world is done in Mississippi. 

Ron Starner
Executive Vice President of Conway, Inc.

Ron Starner

Ron Starner is Executive Vice President of Conway Data, Inc. He has been with Conway Data for 22 years and serves as a writer and editor for both Site Selection and the company's Custom Content publishing division. His Twitter handle is @RonStarner.


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