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Networking leads to teamwork among economic developers, university

Town turns potential disaster into success story

MONTICELLO — Thanks to a timely deal between the Lawrence County Community Development Association (LCCDA) and Kellwood Corp., and with a little help from economic development friends, a potential disaster was turned into a success story.

On Oct. 15, 1999, Kellwood officials at the west St. Louis County, Mo.-based multidivisional marketer of consumer soft goods, announced the company was closing its Monticello facility and more than 300 people would lose their jobs. Monticello had less than 2,000 residents; Lawrence County had a population of roughly 13,000. The area could ill afford such an economic blow.

The following week, Paul McLain, executive director of the Lawrence County Community Development Association, and Robert Ingram, executive director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s economic development outreach program, were in Nashville to help the Mississippi Development Authority host a reception for Fortune 500 executives at the fall meeting of the International Development Research Council (IDRC). McLain asked Ingram for his assistance in finding a new tenant for the Kellwood-owned building.

The networking began with McLain and Ingram, who had a brief history of teaming up on community projects. They met in the late 1990s through the Mississippi Economic Development Council when McLain, a Monticello native and University of Mississippi graduate, took the post at LCCDA. At the same time, Ingram was a staff member at the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce.

Soon after Ingram took the job with USM in 1998, McLain enrolled in the university’s New South Economic Development Course and was named its outstanding student and winner of the Ray and Jimmy Heidel Scholarship. The duo partnered with Entergy on a mock industrial visit, assisted with a Southwest Mississippi labor analysis and worked with the MDA on strategic planning for Monticello.

“I told Paul that I’d worked closely with several upper level executives at Kellwood for years, knew that they were very community-minded and always tried to ease the pain when causing the loss of jobs,” Ingram said. “I also knew of at least one instance in which they donated a vacated facility to the community to help them in replacing lost jobs. I suggested that Paul have the county formally ask Kellwood officials to donate the building to the community. Paul, who truly is one of the rising young stars in Mississippi economic development efforts, jumped at the idea and immediately started the ball rolling.”

The Lawrence County Board of Supervisors officially made the request, and Kellwood transferred the 39,000-square-foot building, valued at $250,000, and land to the county last summer.

“Anytime a community actually owns a vacant facility, it opens up options, such as leasing or doing a lease/purchase of the facility to a new company, offering a below market lease to be determined by the economic impact of the new jobs to be created, or even selling the building below market if sufficient jobs are to be created, but with a clause which would allow the community to recover the property if the jobs were eliminated,” Ingram said. “These options are seldom available if the building is privately owned and it is thus much harder for a community to place a new company in a facility they don’t control. The Kellwood facility gave the county a spec building to offer, and it helped them land a new company.”

Once Kellwood announced the donation, McLain spread the word to local government and business leaders.

“One of our elected officials, Justice Court Judge Donnie Mullins, who owns Mullins’ Sporting Goods in Monticello, knew the Foster (Millworks) family and had done some business with their game call division,” McLain said. “He knew they were looking to expand their operations and create new jobs and preferred an existing building in the area. Last spring, Judge Mullins introduced me to the Foster family. The building was a great fit and suited the company’s needs.”

Last month, officials at Foster Millworks, makers of value-added forest products such as cabinets, molding and wood doors, made it official. They would lease the building from Lawrence County for a nominal fee and would pay for maintenance costs, insurance fees and related expenses. They already employed 15 residents at an existing facility near the Lawrence-Lincoln county line.

Foster Millworks received a $247,735 energy investment program loan from MDA to purchase equipment for the building, some of which has already been put in place.

Operations are expected to start up June 1 or sooner. Initially, up to 30 employees will be hired at $10 to $15 per hour and the company plans to hire more employees as production increases, McLain said.

“The successful end result happened because of networking, preparation and lots of luck — three factors that are critical to the success of almost every economic development project,” Ingram said. “It is the satisfaction derived from such success and the impact it has on people’s lives that keeps most economic development professionals in the business.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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