Last year, after Monroe County’s two chambers of commerce lost executive directors, the business community united to form one strong countywide organization — the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce. It’s the best move Monroe countians could have made, business leaders say.
“We had an uphill battle with two chambers in the county,” said Mike Cayson, MCCC’s board chairman. “Before, to my knowledge, and I’ve been associated with the chamber in Aberdeen for quite some time, we’ve never had anyone want to help us much. By combining the two chambers that had to split resources, we were able to better fund it. Unfortunately, money makes the world go round and when we didn’t have sufficient funds, it made it difficult to make progress.”
In January, more than 500 people attended MCCC’s inaugural annual banquet at the American Legion building in Aberdeen. It was the first such event since the Economic Development Partnership of North Monroe County and the Aberdeen-South Monroe Chamber of Commerce merged and attracted a record number of attendees.
Monthly board meetings and after-hours networking events alternate between Amory and Aberdeen. The chamber’s two dozen board members are evenly split between the two cities, with other representation from across the county. To serve the chamber’s 250 members, four staffers are assisted by 24 ambassadors that volunteer time to chamber functions.
Cayson said David Parker, formerly with the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development and other economic development groups, was recruited as executive director soon after the organization was formed.
“Since we’ve got a united front and because of connections in Jackson, we’ve had a lot of cooperation from the state of Mississippi and that’s very positive,” Cayson said. “Area legislators think it’s positive. The supervisors in Monroe County have stepped up to the plate (with a $115,000 contribution) and helped us financially get this off the ground. We’re planning an industrial park that will bring more business to the area. People seem to be paying attention to Monroe County. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”
The combined chambers had an annual budget of about $110,000; the countywide chamber’s first-year budget was $265,000. A five-year strategic plan for the company, the first of its kind in the county, was developed by Knoxville, Tenn.-based Lockwood Greene and is the “road map by which the chamber operates,” said David Parker, MCCC’s CEO and president.
“The benefits of a singular chamber include one-stop shopping for business information and one group operating in a unified county effort rather than cities competing against each other,” Parker said. “It definitely makes Monroe County more competitive.”
Some of the county’s largest employers include BASF, Kerr-McGee, Georgia Gulf and Tru-Temper, and Monroe County has more frontage on the Tenn-Tom waterway, including two ports, than any other county in the state, Parker said.
Business leaders are marketing a 350,000-square-foot plant vacated by Walker Automotive in Aberdeen, makers of auto exhaust replacement parts and a division of Tenneco. The plant, which had been a mainstay in Monroe County since the 1950s and had employed up to 500 people, closed March 31, laying off 215 workers. Combined with seasonal factors and other job losses, the unemployment rate in January was 8.4%.
“This whole corridor is highly automotive related,” Parker said. “Human resources are very high for that industry here. We’re working with the state on bringing someone in…to the fill the void.”
Last fall, economic developers announced that a new 160-acre industrial park, which will house up to 10 new industries, would be located midway between Amory and Aberdeen near the county airport. The federal Economic Development Administration granted the county $656,000 to develop the park and the county chipped in $164,000 and a commitment to complete infrastructure improvements. No companies have signed on at the industrial park yet, Cayson said.
“It’s still early,” Cayson said. “We’re getting infrastructure put down now.”
Warren Pickle, owner of Pickle Funeral Home in Amory and member of the countywide chamber of commerce, said he’s noticed “a spirit of cooperation and much more unity than we once had in Monroe County.”
Cayson said the positive feedback and business community’s interest since the chambers have been consolidated and unified has been “very much appreciated.”
“We’ve got to find our own niche, there’s no question about that,” said Cayson. “Tupelo and Columbus both have success stories, and we’ll have to create our own. Prior to this, nobody knew we were down here. We’re kind of a best-kept secret and we’re going to try to get the word out.”
A good workforce and improved roads have also benefited the county when site selection scouts come calling, Cayson said.
“We’re hopeful that companies looking for a site will go back and tell folks they’ve found it in Monroe County,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.