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East Mississippi counties working together

Veteran Mississippi economic developers say that it wasn’t long ago that competition between cities and counties was cut-throat with no holds barred. Example: an unsuspecting “prospect” scheduled to visit a Mississippi town was hijacked by a competing town upon his arrival at the Memphis airport.

Needless to say, the plant located in another state. In one area of Mississippi — hopefully — those days are gone forever.

The East Central Mississippi Economic Council is comprised of 15 counties — almost 20% of the state’s 82 counties. Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Association, is president of the group.

“It makes sense for us all to pull together,” Ford says. “If Starkville gets a plant, then we benefit. Whether we recognize it or not, it’s always been shared, and that’s the way it should be.”

Back at the beginning

The ECMEC area extends in a wide semi-circle roughly from West Point to Brandon to Quitman. According to Gerald Mills, the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development representative in Meridian, the organization’s genesis goes back to 1992.

William Richardson was in charge of economic development for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Neshoba County and foresaw a need for area cooperation if the Choctaws were to continue good relations with their neighbors. The Silver Star Casino and Resort was about to open and Richardson saw that as presenting tourism opportunities for all of east Mississippi.

Another driving factor for the organization was the recognition that more and more manufacturing jobs were being lost as the garment industry moved offshore. And the financing and encouragement of Jimmy Heidel and the Department of Economic and Community Development was instrumental in the organization’s formation.

Richardson was the first president of the group and within a year there were nine east Mississippi counties focused on coordination of tourism.

German engineering, Alabama workforce…

How does Mississippi figure into the mix?

Flash forward to today as you drive Interstate 20/59 to Vance, Ala., just east of Tuscaloosa, where formerly only pine trees grew and underbrush thickened. Unwary motorists’ heads snap as they behold a huge modern manufacturing facility accompanied by signs that say “Mercedes Drive Exit.”

Yes, it’s a $350-million, auto-giant Mercedes plant in the heart of Dixie. And according to their external affairs administrator Debbie Nelson, the company has 1,600 employees (and counting). They hope to expand production this year to 80,000 M-Class vehicles — the company’s first all-terrain offering.

When Mercedes and Alabama officials announced plans for the plant in 1993, what riveted the attention of ECMEC members was that Mercedes would absorb the freight on parts suppliers located within 125 miles of Vance. That radius would include some part of all the nine counties in the group.

Although the plant didn’t open until May 1997, the ECMEC quickly changed its focus to attracting manufacturing jobs and sprang into action. In early ‘96, a luncheon was held in Detroit for auto parts manufacturers in the area. Hosts included Gov. Kirk Fordice, Jimmy Heidel and members of the ECMEC. The benefits of a plant in Mississippi that could easily supply Mercedes were sung loud and clear.

A luncheon in Tuscaloosa with Mercedes officials in October of ‘96 revealed that the targeted production figure of 65,000 vehicles would only attract primary parts suppliers, and those plants were already located nearby. Secondary suppliers would need facilities nearby only when production was much higher.

During the luncheon, the possibility of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) visiting the plant was mentioned. Company officials were delighted and a plant tour and luncheon was held seven months later which included Mercedes USA president Andreas Renschler, Lott, U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, Heidel and ECMEC representatives.

All three of the Mississippi officials expressed their pleasure in having Mercedes close by and emphasized their interest in having Mississippi share in future benefits of the plant, especially parts supplier locations.

Since then, ECMEC members have hosted a reception at the Society of Automotive Engineers exposition in Detroit and another reception at an area meeting of the same group in Nashville. This year, the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development will host the Detroit function.

The organization has also won regional awards for the promotional materials sent to auto suppliers revolving around M&M (Mercedes and Mississippi) and a jar of M&M candy. A study comparing Mississippi favorably with Alabama as a manufacturing location was completed and is being used as a selling point.

More than Mercedes

Meantime, as other counties saw the need for regional cooperation, the ECMEC has grown to 15 counties. In addition to the state’s DECD, financial support has come from all of the area’s utilities, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and local governments and organizations.

As Gerald Mills says, “Good economic development means you begin a long time in advance and that’s what we’re doing — our success is dependent on Mercedes doubling their production to 130,000 vehicles, which is probably two years off. Meantime we’re getting our foot in the door of those prospects which is the first step in economic development.”

ECMEC president Charleigh Ford says amen. “We were realistic. We never thought we’d have people lining up to come into the state. And we have a meeting this month to broaden our objectives.”

There’s another angle to the ECMEC efforts. One of the auto parts suppliers that attended the Detroit reception was contacted by John Rucker, executive director of the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority. The supplier needed a 200,000-square-foot building which was unavailable in Rucker’s area. He promptly referred the inquiry to his fellow ECMEC members in Forest and Meridian, both of whom had large buildings that meet the supplier’s needs.

Perhaps the “good ol’ days” of cut-throat competition are really the “good ol’ bygone days,” at least in the East Central Mississippi Economic Council.


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