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Job losses prompt action from Winston County leaders

LOUISVILLE — Winston County leaders are taking action to turn around the area’s sagging economy.

In the last 10 years, Winston County has lost more than 3,000 manufacturing jobs. Compared to the county’s population of 20,000 or so, the job loss has significantly impacted the economy in Louisville, the county seat, Noxapater and neighboring communities. In June, the unemployment rate hovered around 10%.

“NAFTA’s killed us,” said Jimmy McMillin, a Louisville businessman. “We really need some help.”

Last month, local government and economic development leaders met at Lake Tiak O’Khata in Winston County at a Council of Government Retreat, where they discussed solutions to the county’s economic plight with state economist Phil Pepper, Ph.D., and Mississippi Development Authority staff members.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve lost over 3,000 jobs, starting with Spartus in the early 1990s,” said Joel O’Briant, executive director of the Winston County Economic Development District. “Spartus was the largest clockmaker in the world, employing 1,500 people locally, and started manufacturing their clocks with cheap labor in China. By 1994, they had completely shut down operations here.”

Soon after, TRW, a manufacturer of airbags and seatbelts, closed its Winston County plant, affecting 900 workers.

“The day TRW closed, their vice president said our plant had the best record on quality, productivity and low absenteeism and was their most efficient plant, but their main competitor started producing in Mexico with labor at $1.25 an hour. To be competitive, TRW had to move down there,” O’Briant said.

When Anjelica Uniforms moved its cut-and-sew plants out of the country, the Winston County facility was among them, affecting 150 workers.

In 1992, employment in Winston County hit a low of 5,590, primarily based on Spartus, TRW and Anjelica plant closures.

“The latest plant closure was the Georgia-Pacific Plywood plant,” O’Briant said. “At first, they closed temporarily, but then came back and closed permanently. They directly laid off 400 people but also another 200 were employed supplying the plant with timber cut from the area. We’ve been working hard with them and if the economy turns around, we hope they will reopen the plant.”

Southern Natural recently laid off about 60 workers and Taylor Machine Works, citing a severe downturn in the markets it serves, recently reduced its workforce, O’Briant said.

“We reduced corporately about 20% of our workforce and about 95% of those are in Winston County,” said William A. “Lex” Taylor III, president of The Taylor Group, Inc. in Louisville. The Taylor Group includes Taylor Machine Works, Sudden Service and Taylor Environmental Products.

“It’s not that we’re not getting the business,” Taylor said. “Our competition is based in Europe and we’re facing the disparity of the strength of the dollar. We hope this round of layoffs will be effective enough to adjust to the current level of business. Right now, business has leveled out a little and is holding steady, which is a good sign.”

WCM Inc., producer of cabinets, and Polo Custom Products, a division of MC Industries, recently opened manufacturing facilities in Winston County, adding 100 and 150 local jobs, respectively. A recently-opened children’s psychiatric hospital started with 106 employees, but half of those have recently been laid off. A new regional jail provided employment for 150 people and an existing business, Sylvester’s Inc., has expanded and added 50 workers.

“We’ve been able to bring in a little, but when you’re replacing a 1,500-worker plant, it just doesn’t do it,” O’Briant said.

Even though Winston County has lost more than 3,000 manufacturing jobs since 1990, there has been a net increase in overall employment of 120, according to Pepper.

In 1990, manufacturing jobs accounted for 45.4% of employment in Winston County, compared to the state’s average of 26.5%.

In 2000, manufacturing employment in Winston County was 34.1%, compared to the Mississippi average of 21.4%.

“The counties in Mississippi that are being hit the hardest are rural counties with a high percentage of manufacturing jobs,” O’Briant said. “Even when the economy comes back, it’s going to be tough to keep manufacturing jobs because of NAFTA. We’re doing everything we can to target the automotive industry, because that seems to be the only bright spot in the state, and we’d like to at least get some second tier suppliers for the Nissan plant being built in Madison County. We’ve been to Smyrna, Tenn., and met with people there and sent flyers to the companies that are already Nissan suppliers and we’re meeting with the governor to get his help.”

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was scheduled to visit Winston County Aug. 10, but at press time, the trip had been postponed until late August.

In the last several years, highway transportation has dramatically improved in Louisville. A four-lane project of Mississippi 25 is underway and construction is scheduled to four-lane Mississippi 15.

“The foundation is there,” O’Briant said. “City and county government leaders are working together and we have good highways and medical facilities. We’re working closely with East Central Community College. We have well- trained people, especially the ones who worked for Georgia-Pacific and were heavily trained on computers. That has to be a real asset for someone coming in. We’re very optimistic.”

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

About Lynne W. Jeter

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