Wilson fit right in at state chamber

Invariably when Blake Wilson introduced himself to a crowd in Mississippi, he would poke fun at his tiny home state of Delaware, a place “with three counties, only two at high tide.”

After a while, the introduction got to be so familiar that audiences would finish the punch line.

Wilson, who has headed up the state’s chamber of commerce for the past 19 years, understood that if a Northerner wants to be embraced in the Deep South, a sense of humor helps, especially if that humor is directed at Yankees.

Wilson announced last week his pending retirement from the Mississippi Economic Council. He will be missed.

Under his leadership, MEC grew and modernized. It even courted a little controversy now and then, but thanks heavily to Wilson’s affable personality and inoffensive style, it did it in such a way that no one usually stayed mad at him or MEC for long. As a business-dominated organization, MEC’s membership tends to be heavily Republican, but Wilson connected just as easily with Democrats in the state Legislature.

Today, MEC claims 1,100 dues-paying companies as its members, nearly triple what it was when Wilson was hired away from Florida, where he was the second in command at that fellow Southern state’s chamber of commerce.

He helped expand MEC’s reach by making it less Jackson-centric. He started regular road shows, in which he and other MEC officials would make a dozen or so stops around the state. Greenwood was frequently on the schedule. Wilson would outline MEC’s priorities and seek feedback from the business community at large, not just those around the Capitol. The gatherings got so sophisticated that in recent years, those in attendance would be handed electronic clickers to record their immediate responses on a few key issues.

A big part of Wilson’s job has been as an economic development cheerleader. He has done that well. On the week that he announced his retirement, he produced an op-ed column touting how much good the Nissan automotive plant has done for Mississippi in the 14 years it has been here.

The timing of the piece seemed unrelated to Wilson’s retirement announcement. It probably had a lot to do, though, with a labor rally planned for next weekend in Canton, which is featuring Bernie Sanders, the pro-union Vermont senator who did surprisingly well in his longshot run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. Nissan has been under heat for years for its alleged union-busting activities at its Mississippi plant. Wilson was most likely trying to get one of the state’s largest employers some good PR as a pre-emptive strike.

Wilson has not just been a pitchman for big corporations and their friends at the Mississippi Development Authority. He also has been tasked at times with trying to persuade recalcitrant lawmakers to change some longstanding ways that have hurt this state’s economy or its image. He has been the point person in the MEC’s support of adopting a new state flag without the controversial Confederate emblem and for raising taxes to fund road and bridge repairs.

It is a shame that neither of those things is likely to happen before Wilson retires in June, but nothing happens quickly in the Legislature. That is, unless you are giving hundreds of millions of dollars away to a foreign automaker or tire manufacturer — an issue on which Wilson and I have agreeably disagreed over the years.

Wilson, a newspaper reporter before he got into the association business, has been a good friend to the newspaper industry in this state.

When the Mississippi Press Association needed help in 2007 with its annual fund-raising roast, Wilson pitched in. Every year since, he has lined up sponsors and peddled tickets for the event, which funds internships and college scholarships for aspiring journalists. The year Wilson himself was the roastee, it was the second-most successful in the program’s history, only behind Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum’s turn.

Not too shabby for a fellow from Delaware, a state with three counties …

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