in the delta — Agriculture and forestry are still the mainstays of the economy of the Mississippi Delta, but the region is making significant strides in attracting other developments, to bring economic balance and diversity to the region best known for its cotton and catfish.
“Thirty years ago you could look around the Delta and say, ‘There is no manufacturing presence here,’” said Mark Manning, director of development for Delta Council, an area development organization representing 18 Mississippi Delta and part-Delta counties. “I won’t say we’re where we want to be — we still want a lower unemployment rate — but in that 30-year period of time we have made great strides in manufacturing.”
The Delta is the nation’s largest agriculture producer with catfish sales estimated at close to $1 billion annually. Cotton may not be “King” anymore, but continues to be a major contributor to the economy. Rice, corn and soybeans are also important.
Some of the new manufacturing operations are related to agriculture such as production of farm implements. But there are also manufacturers that aren’t ag-related. For example, Baxter Healthcare in Cleveland produces intravenous solutions for medical use, and Duo-Fast, also in Cleveland, makes nails and staples.
In Greenwood, Viking Range is a new company that produces kitchen appliances, and Irving Automotive makes interior parts for Ford and Toyota. Viking recently broke ground on a new $4.1-million facility at the Itta Bena Industrial Park on U.S. 82.
“The balance is there,” Manning said. “In terms of growth in the manufacturing sector, from 1980-1996, manufacturing employment in Northwest Mississippi has gone up 17% and wages up 130%. This was when manufacturing employment nationwide was essentially flat.”
The region’s manufacturing wages in 1996 were $924 million for a total 40,000 employees. Per capita income has gone from $6,000 to $17,000 since 1980. That has translated into more retail sales and a doubling of the assessed property value of Northwest Mississippi.
The growth in manufacturing compliments agriculture. The Mississippi Delta has traditionally had a lot of natural advantages in agriculture — rich soils and favorable climate. In fact, the area has been called “The Silicon Valley of Agriculture.”
But experience has shown that depending on just one type of industry, be it agriculture in the Delta or Detroit’s dependence on the auto industry, can be unwise because a downturn in that industry can depress the entire economy. So Delta leaders have gone after balancing agriculture with industrial development.
“We have to go after companies that can be successful here,” Manning said. “We’ve done a lot of research to target the particular kinds of companies that fit here. Those companies would primarily, but not exclusively, be companies that do light metal fabrication, assembly, plastics and wiring. Then some of the specific gap targets we have include packaging products and suppliers for manufactured housing. So we know the kinds of companies that make sense here. And we specifically like to go after companies that over time will increase the skill levels of our labor base.”
While the Delta has done a much better job in manufacturing growth than the outside world probably realizes, some counties still have double unemployment. Manning attributes that partly to a lack of education and training, a problem he said that isn’t unique to the Delta, but it is critical.
“We’re working very, very hard on that issue,” he said. “The community colleges are doing everything they can to expand their services. Companies are spending a lot of time and money to educate people. Having an adaptable and skilled labor force is our biggest barrier. This isn’t intended as criticism of the current system. We need to provide more resources to give people skills they need to get jobs. And we’re going to do it.”
Delta leaders have also used incentives provided by the Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone to lure new development. The federal empowerment zone designation provides tax incentives to industries which locate in rural areas in need of economic development.
Dollar General located in the zone, and is building a $38-million distribution center in Indianola that will employ about 500.
“We were in fierce competition for them, but the bottom line from what they said was that they thought Indianola was their type of town,” said Jim Murphy, director of Sunflower County Economic Development District. “They felt good here, and that is the majority of the reason that we were picked.”
Murphy said the way the empowerment zone works, if all 500 employees live within the empowerment zone, then the company could claim up to $1.5 million annually in income tax credit.
The 800,000-square-foot distribution facility is expected to open in about 30 days. Even prior to opening, construction of the facility created 300 jobs and was a boom to local restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
“The benefits were seen immediately,” Murphy said. “We had a surge of expansions by local businesses. There is a new Holiday Inn under construction, and Dollar General is building a new store. There is also a downtown project going on that is part of this whole smell of roses.”
Murphy said that when he came through Indianola 10 years ago, he had trouble finding a phone booth, and the only restaurant was Dairy Queen. “Now there is hardly a spot available in the city limits on Highway 82,” he said. “It’s just jam packed.”
Cliff Brumfield, executive director of the Greenwood Leflore Industrial Board and the Greenwood Leflore Carroll Economic Development Foundation, said new industries spark increased confidence and investment in the area by small businesses.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a definite increase in new industrial, retail and service projects,” Brumfield said. “Area industries are growing, creating new jobs and better incomes. As our existing companies have grown and new industries locate, we are seeing an increase in disposable income. Service and retail businesses are beginning to benefit from this growth. Just take a drive down Highway 82 from Greenwood to Greenville. You’ll see new industries and businesses where there was once vacant ground.”
Brumfield sites heavy traffic as an example of the economic progress. Highways 82, 49 and 7 coming in and out of Greenwood are bumper-to-bumper with commuters.
“Needless to say, we’re enjoying the prosperity,” Brumfield said.
Brumfield, Murphy and other economic development officials have banded together to form Delta Developers to see that this prosperity spreads throughout the Delta. Murphy said the idea behind the organization is that it’s more realistic to deal with the development of the whole Delta since the counties are drastically affected by what happens in neighboring counties.
“Our philosophy is that if one of us has a prospect we can’t fill, we will certainly turn it over to one of the other Delta developers in an attempt to get them to site somewhere in the area,” Murphy said. Government and business leaders are also expecting good things from a new industrial training facility being funded by a $4-million empowerment zone grant plus state and local funds. The facility will be located at Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead.
“It’s going to be a real boost in this area,” said Murphy, who predicts that companies will use the facility to help train employees for technical, highly-skilled jobs.