The missionary retiring

Greg Hinkebein, who's retiring but not retreating, is a true believer who envisions a South Mississippi that will be known as one of the nation's premier tech centers…

Greg Hinkebein laughs when reminded that a reporter once referred to him as a "missionary" because of his zeal over the potential of South Mississippi. He doesn't deny he's enthusiastic - even if some have a hard time seeing it.

He thinks that one day he'll be able to look back and say, "I told you so."

Hinkebein, president and CEO of the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology since February 1999, retires in September of this year. But he won't fade away. He's considering options that will keep him engaged in Stennis Space Center and the future of South Mississippi.

"It's in my blood," he said.

Hinkebein has the missionary zeal that comes from seeing clearly what others see only vaguely, if at all. He knows the history of other technology centers, he knows what's in South Mississippi and the broader region, and he can see it beginning to take shape.

And what, precisely, is that? Nothing short of South Mississippi taking its place among the areas of the country identified with technology and innovation, the type of place that will be a magnet for high-tech.

Hinkebein said there are two things that have occurred during his tenure that he considers significant. One is the development of technology parks and other areas where technology companies can congregate. The other is the growth of Stennis Space Center itself through the establishment of the NASA Shared Services Center.

"If you look at those places off site and you combine them with the growth on site of federal agencies and other companies, then you've got real long-term growth started on an actual technology center," he said.

He doesn't think the broader public fully grasps events unfolding on the technological front in South Mississippi. But a part of that is because so many people are still coping with the fallout from Hurricane Katrina.

"I think we were beginning to see that before the storm, because there were some things happening at Stennis that hadn't happened here before," he said, including the establishment of Stennis Technology Park and the movement to establish a science center, Infinity, near the interstate.

"And then here comes the storm and you've got to rebuild everything," he said.

Part of what makes Hinkebein tick is the doubters.

"There are some people who work in this business who don't believe that this can really happen here. But this is not on the coast. I think most of the people on the coast, because they're so much a part of the community here, want to see this happen because it lifts the economy of the region.

"But there are people in Mississippi who really believe there's not a chance of us developing a technology center on the Mississippi Gulf Coast around the Stennis Space Center," he said.

Why do they feel that way?

"My gut tells me that they have seen the economic growth in Mississippi and they have determined that that growth can't sustain a technology center. Now, that's a complicated way to describe this, but, these are people who look at the coast and they say, we don't think that will happen there because the economy in Mississippi can't sustain something like that."

And he has a response for the doubters.

"My answer to that is, go to Huntsville. Go to Huntsville, Ala., and look at where that town came from," he said, referring to the north Alabama city that in the 1950s was a cotton town and today is one of the premier technology centers of the nation.

"I don't believe those people (doubters) have looked at what's happened in other technology centers. And I think they have a perception that's incorrect in the fact that, if it's not there today it can't be built," he said.

Is it that some people in Mississippi are almost prejudiced against Mississippi?

"I think that has a lot to do with it, but it is a difficult thing to do. And you have to ask questions of people who have done it before. You can't just in your own mind say, we're going to build a technology center right here and by my own drive, will and effort it's going to happen," he said.

It's a matter of really studying what's happened in other areas.

"You have to go to places where it has happened and talk to people who have done it. And we've done that. With the Stennis Technology Park, one of the initial efforts that we put in place was a visit to Huntsville, with people in Alabama who knew the movers and shakers that developed that area up there.

"And we sat down and we talked to them and we told them what we had at Stennis and where we were going in the development of technology, and these were people in the private sector, with the chamber of commerce, politicians, people who were involved in the growth of Huntsville, and there was not one person in the entire room who said you can't do that in Hancock County. Not one. In fact, what most of them said was, you know, this is kind of what we looked like 20 years ago."

Some people in Huntsville pointed out what Hinkebein considers key.

"What they said was, you know in this entire process we didn't get help from Montgomery. We got help from people in Huntsville," he said. That tells him it will be up to locals to make it happen.

It will mean cooperation on a level like never before. It will mean involving an incubator like MsET, community development organizations, private sector organizations and government facilities and universities; a lot of players with the same goal.

"But if you can make that work, then I'd say, 20 years from now in the immediate area - Harrison County, Hancock County, Pearl River County, probably some in St. Tammany Parish - you're going to see a lot of what developed in Huntsville," he said.

"I would say 20 years from now, you're going to have a technology center that's already in the fast growth pace. I think in 20 years you could be talking about the Stennis Space Center area as they do about Huntsville, because it's so closely aligned with what happened there," said Hinkebein.

And then there's the broader region.

"If you look at a broader area, and that would include what would be in Louisiana at Michoud, what would be at the shipyards in Pascagoula, what's happening in Mobile with some of the aerospace activity there and certainly if you went on over to Fort Walton and Eglin Air Force Base and all of what's there, then you've got the basics of what happened in the larger technology centers in the country," he said.

"Now, that may not happen here, but the fact of the matter is, if somebody, or let me put it in better terms, a group of people or a group of organizations can see the vision of what we have as a base here and what it can grow into, then I think the development of a major technology center on the Gulf Coast through several states is a real possibility."

- David Tortorano