By Randy Bell
When the leaders of a new regional organization began thinking about who they should hire to spearhead the effort to bring businesses, industries and homebuilders to Clinton and western Hinds County, they discovered the answer was right under their noses.
Philip Gunn may have left the House. But he hasn’t left home.
“My life is tied up into this community,” Gunn says. “I moved here when I was nine years old. This community helped formulate who I am as a person. When I graduated law school and could move anywhere I wanted to move, I chose to come back here.”
And now, after the last eight years in one of the most powerful positions in state government as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Gunn has agreed to take charge of the community’s new approach to economic development with the group known as Connect West.
“I am going to try to take advantage of the relationships that I’ve been able to develop over the last twenty years in the legislature and use that for the benefit of Clinton,” Gunn says. “I’m not an economic developer. I don’t portray myself as such. But I have a passion for this town. I’m a guy who just loves Clinton and wants to see it prosper.”
Gunn will be surrounded by a group of successful business leaders who’ve contributed $10,000 to become charter members of Connect West.
“We think we’ve settled on somebody who is going to help lead us,” says the chairman of the organization, Wayne Pierce. “And then, of course, as Connect West—as board members — we’re all going to be in support of [Gunn], in providing, as business people, what we can.”
Pierce cautions that reaching Connect West’s economic development goals won’t be a quick process.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Pierce. “It’s not going to happen in three months, six months. We’ll have things underway. Of course, building and land clearing and all that type of stuff takes time. So, it won’t be an immediate impact, but it will be coming.”
The vice chairman of Connect West is Tim Parkman. He says Clinton is “absolutely” headed in the right direction with the new regional economic development efforts.
“What it allows us to do is to have strategic growth to maximize the unique strengths that we have,” Parkman says. And bringing Gunn on board “is better than we could ever imagine.”
As it pursues other economic investments, Connect West will be working to take advantage of the major mixed-use development known informally as the 80/20 project, which is taking shape near Mississippi College.
“It will kind of be the face of the town, and it really gives us an opportunity to portray a very positive image of our community,” Gunn says. “I want it to be first class. I want it to be a top shelf-type facility.”
As Speaker, Gunn helped direct millions of State dollars to the project to pay for infrastructure. Gunn says he is hoping it will provide a unique opportunity for travelers on the nearby interstate highway.
“When you think about shopping complexes along that I-20 corridor, there’s really nothing from Birmingham to Dallas in the way of a nice shopping area.” He says the 80/20 development could be the “gateway” to the city.
“And it’s going to snowball into other opportunities in this community for further economic development,” Gunn says.
But Gunn points out that Connect West is not just about Clinton.
“We’re going to be looking to move west and develop western Hinds County—Raymond, Edwards, Bolton, all the way to Vicksburg.”
Clinton Mayor Phil Fisher admits that, in his wildest dreams, he never thought Gunn would be interested in a job as Connect West’s consultant for economic development opportunities.
“It never crossed my mind,” Fisher says. “I don’t know that we could have done better. I really don’t.”
The mayor says Gunn will be able to open a lot of doors for Connect West.
“I think now having someone who could pick up the phone and call [national companies], somebody who can talk to people that he knows who have a lot of money and are looking for places to invest, is going to be a great asset to us. To have a former Speaker of the House helping us in this effort is going to be a real boost.”