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Speed to leave Miss. Development Authority; Swoope to take over

Millionaire businessman Leland Speed is leaving his $1-a-year job as director of Mississippi’s economic-development agency at the end of the year, and Gray Swoope, his second-in-command, will step up into the position — with better pay.

Swoope, 45, has been chief operating officer of the Mississippi Development Authority in the nearly three years since Gov. Haley Barbour tapped Speed to lead the agency.

“I want to leave while y’all still don’t want me to leave,” Speed, 70, told MDA employees who packed a news conference where Barbour announced the changes on Tuesday.

Before going to MDA, Speed was founder and chairman of two Jackson-based companies that are listed on the New York Stock Exchange — Parkway Properties Inc. and EastGroup Properties Inc.

During his tenure at MDA, Speed has overseen the state’s economic recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina, and those efforts have brought both praise and criticism.

While MDA has helped bring back some of the 70,000 jobs wiped away by the August 2005 storm, the agency also has overseen a homeowners’ grant program that many coast residents say is operating too slowly.

MDA, under Speed, also has helped attract multimillion dollar businesses such as the SeverCorr steel minimill that’s being built near Columbus.

Barbour said Speed is “probably my most widely praised appointment to head a department of state government, and should be.” The governor also called Speed “one of Mississippi’s most outstanding business leaders ever” and said he wasn’t surprised when Speed agreed to take the MDA job for $1 a year.

“Man, have the taxpayers got their money’s worth on this deal,” Barbour said, smiling.

Swoope will continue at his current salary of $153,302, said MDA spokeswoman Melissa Medley.

Swoope, a West Point native, said he has dreamt of leading his home state’s job-creation efforts since 1985, when he went to work for the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association.

In 1991, Swoope went to work for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. In 1997, he moved to a job at the Area Development Partnership, a three-county group based in Hattiesburg. Swoope was president of the partnership before moving to his job at MDA.

“Gray is a very sharp fella,” Speed said. “He has, in fact, helped me to look good. I can pontificate, but he made the wheels turn every day. He got the door opened, got the door closed.”

Barbour presented Speed an oversized check for $3 — three times Speed’s MDA salary.

“I’m sure the Wall Street overseers will think that we’re being overly generous,” the governor joked.