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Economic developers and workforce trainers working overtime

Pike countians lure bigger fi$h

MCCOMB — Keeping up with the latest economic development projects has workforce trainers at Southwest Mississippi Community College and economic developers in Pike County working overtime.

Britt Herrin, executive director of the Pike County Economic Development District and Chamber of Commerce, said construction will begin on NRG Energy’s $500-million peaking plant this fall that will provide permanent employment for 20 people. The construction phase, which could take up to two years to complete, will provide temporary employment for up to 600 workers.

“That’s a large infusion of dollars into the local economy,” Herrin said. “It’ll be a boon to construction in the area.”

NRG Energy Inc. (NYSE: NRG) is the world’s fifth largest and the nation’s second largest independent power producer.

County officials expect the Federal Bureau of Prisons to notify them this fall about whether or not Pike County has been selected as the site of a new federal prison.

Other projects and expansions are in the works. Even Southwest Mississippi Community College (SMCC) is gaining a new $6.2-million student union facility, which should be complete in January 2002. And economic developers recently hinted about another significant investment in the area that could be announced within the next few weeks.

At the same time economic developers are juggling new projects, and the workforce training team at SMCC has been beefing up its training programs — on a leaner budget.

“Workforce training has been a bit of a challenge,” said Horace Holmes, Ph.D., president of SMCC. “We’ve tightened our belts — even a small percentage cut wreaks havoc on a small district like ours — but we’ve been OK because we saved a little for a rainy day. Workforce training is so very important in an area like ours.”

Holmes added, “We’re one of the smallest districts in the state, but we have one of our biggest pre-enrollments ever.”

SMCC’s workforce training program for area businesses includes several projects with Air Cruisers Corp., makers of escape chutes for airlines, under-seat life vests and life rafts for commercial and military airplanes.

“Since 1999, we’ve trained over 116 participants to learn basic skills in our Accent on Learning, or AOL, program,” said Carolyn Williams, workforce basic skills specialist at SMCC, who coordinates training for Air Cruisers. “Because the company is steadily hiring, it’s developed into an ongoing project.”

Williams also teaches a Computer Base Training (CBT) Program, which had 40 participants this year, and 96 participants in 2000.

“This month, we’re looking at a Value Stream Mapping (VSM) Program, which teaches their engineers how to look for waste,” she said. “We’ve also had a mobile classroom, which has 12 computers for computer training, on their site since last May.”

Ed Dundas, general manager of Air Cruisers Corp., a subsidiary of Group Zodiac in France, said the company is hiring more workers because of increased production and airline orders. The company’s customers include Boeing, Airbus, BAE and most major airlines.

Lamar Rogers, industrial training coordinator at SMCC, who primarily trains workers for the Southwest Mississippi Medical Center and the Magnolia Electric Power Association in McComb, said the programs are joint partnerships with businesses.

“The school generally provides the instructor and businesses generally provide materials and meeting locations,” he said. “The companies give the employees the time for training, which most often takes place on site. Computer training usually takes place at the school.”

In the last year, SMCC has provided training for 148 participants at Southwest Mississippi Medical Center IV therapy certification for LPNs, Spanish classes for the staff so employees can communicate with the growing Hispanic population, various computer training classes and EMT basic and refresher courses.

First aid CPR training was provided to 84 people who needed certification or recertification for Magnolia EPA, and prerequisite math courses were provided for 10 apprentice linemen. Another 23 workers took the electrical lineman apprentice course.

“Some of the numbers in the classes aren’t huge but when you look at training for linemen, for example, then you have to think that those people keep the power on in four counties and that’s as important to all of us as providing training for 200 people,” Rogers said. “We may not have as many programs as some places, but it’s just as vital if not more vital for them to be trained for our businesses here to be able to operate and employ our citizens.”

To accommodate more corporate and commercial activity, the McComb/Pike County Airport is getting an upgrade.

“Through the FAA, we have received an instrument landing system,” said Jeff Waller, chairman of the McComb/Pike County Joint Airport Board. “In order to use it, we have to do some enhancements to the airport, such as putting in a parallel taxiway, which we’re in the process of awarding now. We have a 5,000-foot runway now that handles about 800 movements from corporate jets a year.”

Economic activity in Pike County has spurred new developments in downtown McComb. Main Street McComb Inc. recently began planning a streetscape design, which will include planting trees and widening sidewalks and pedestrian walkways. The association is working on grant applications for the project, said Dwana May, executive director of Main Street McComb Inc.

Jim Alford, a member of Front Street Restoration, LLC, said his group recently purchased three buildings and a parking lot and has preliminary plans to build upper level apartments or condominiums, with retail space at the street level, with gated parking. The project will be similar to redevelopments in downtown Meridian.

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


About Lynne W. Jeter

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