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Nixon sticks with the familiar in his choice for economic development chief

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2011 - As he heads into his re-election bid, Gov. Jay Nixon has tapped a known quantity -- Jason Hall, executive director of the Missouri Technology Corporation -- to serve as the new director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Hall will handle economic development issues during the coming legislative session, the last before the November 2012 election.

Hall's name had circulated among political and economic-development circles late Thursday, with some saying that his selection signaled that the governor wanted no surprises by choosing someone already familiar with Missouri issues, and who he already has worked with.

The governor's announcement today also hinted that Nixon and his office plan to keep close tabs on the department's operation, since economic-development issues are expected to a key issue in the 2012 campaign.

As Nixon's formal announcement explains:

"In that position, Mr. Hall will oversee continued implementation of the Missouri Strategic Initiative for Economic Growth, the five-year blueprint developed by Gov. Nixon's administration and business leaders across Missouri over the past 18 months."

Two years ago, Nixon had appointed Hall to his current post at the Missouri Technology Corporation. Nixon credits Hall with overseeing "a transformation and rejuvenation of the organization and its mission of supporting the growth of high-tech scientific and technology companies in the state. Mr. Hall was instrumental in the development of Missouri's competitive application for the State Small Business Credit Initiative, a program that is investing $27 million in high-tech, small-business growth and job creation in Missouri."

"Jason Hall is exactly the type of bright, energetic leader we need to help create jobs and move Missouri's economy forward," Nixon said in Friday's announcement. "... With his strong background at the MTC and his stellar academic record, I know Jason will bring energy, dedication and professionalism to his new position as director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development."

Hall is quoted as saying, "Under Governor Nixon's leadership, Missouri is turning the corner after a tough national downturn, and our economy is beginning to move in the right direction. I look forward to working closely with the governor to continue to focus on building strength in Missouri's modern manufacturing sector, expanding our exports, educating a workforce for the careers of tomorrow, and growing more high-tech science and innovation companies in our state. Together, we'll continue to make sure Missouri businesses have the skilled workforce and the right tools they need to keep our economy moving forward."

The governor also lauded departing Economic Development director David Kerr "for his strong leadership of the Department of Economic Development over the past two years."

Kerr had come from Kansas, where he had held a similar economic-development post under then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Kerr's Missouri tenure generally has received positive marks, with Nixon highlighting the department's role in "working aggressively to move Missouri's economy forward. Missouri's unemployment rate in November was 8.2 percent -- its lowest level in 34 months and nearly half-a-point below the national average. The state has added 10,900 manufacturing jobs so far in 2011, and Missouri's exports to other countries have increased by $1.2 billion this year, on top of a 35 percent increase in 2010..."

But since this fall, Kerr also has taken much of the heat over the failed Mamtek economic development project in Moberly, Mo., a debacle blamed for some of the legislative disputes that killed off the proposed economic-development package during last fall's largely unsuccessful special legislative session. State Auditor Tom Schweich was asked by House Speaker Steve Tilley to examine the project.

Mamtek is a company with owners in the United States and China who had proposed to build an artificial sweetener plant in Moberly. The project promised 600 jobs. In exchange, the city guaranteed $39 million in bonds, and the state offered $17 million in tax incentives.

The project went bust. The state never paid out any tax breaks -- a point Kerr emphasized repeatedly during the special session -- but Moberly is on the hook for $39 million in municipal bonds.

A court case continues, as UMB bank -- the trustee for the bonds -- and four other companies owed money by Mamtek have sought recoup at least some of the money.

The state Republican Party and top Republicans in the General Assembly have been hammering Nixon about Mamtek for months. Hall's selection is unlikely to halt that barrage, but the new economic-development chief is no doubt already familiar with the matter -- and the governor's thoughts.

UPDATE: The state GOP took note Friday that just over a year ago, Hall was hit with some damning comments from then-outgoing state Auditor Susan Montee, a Democrat, who contended when she released an audit of the technology corporation that Hall had been "threatening'' her staff because he apparently disagreed with some of their findings.

According to the Kansas City Star at the time, "Montee accused MTC executive director Jason Hall of bullying auditors... 'This was a very difficult and unpleasant experience,' said Montee, who added, 'It did take a long time to get to this point because of what I consider outrageous behavior on the part of MTC.'"

State GOP executive director Lloyd Smith also took note that Hall is Nixon's third economic development chief. His original choice, St. Louis lawyer Linda Martinez, left after several months, complaining that the governor generally had ignored her.

Asserted Smith: "Since 2009, Jay Nixon's Department of Economic Development has been mired in chaos and is in dire need of oversight -- but instead of appointing a new director who could solve the problem and focus on creating jobs, Nixon selected someone who even members of his own party claimed exhibited 'outrageous behavior ' when the entity he was in charge of was being subject to oversight."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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