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Volunteer effort

MERIDIAN — What happened was even more surprising because it occurred the weekend before America was united by the horrific events of Sept. 11th. On Sept. 7 and Sept. 8, a community-wide volunteer effort came together and cleaned up the 630-acre Lauderdale County Industrial Park.

It was a rare, if not unique and certainly momentous, accomplishment. And the four organizers from the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation (EMBDC) spread the commendations around.

Jimmy Alexander, a member of the EMBDC’s executive committee, is given credit for the idea, although he modestly shrugs that off. He said that everyone pitched in equally, but names Ronnie Massey, Ralph Morgan and Carolyn Smith as prime movers.

But let Massey, a former EMBDC chairman, take up the story. “He (Alexander) called me one day three or four months ago and said, ‘I had one of my brainstorms last night,’ so I knew right then that he had something heavy on his mind,” Massey recalled. “Then he said, ‘If we could have a cleanup of (our new industrial park) and get a bunch of folks to donate their equipment and time, we would make a statement about how people feel about economic development and wanting to get something done.’”

In retrospect, Alexander said, “We’d been trying to market a community and we didn’t have land or infrastructure. Now the county had bought that 630 acres for an industrial park and it at least needed to look good. That’s something the community could do on our own. We could have a community work day.”

Morgan and Smith, both members of the EMBDC board of directors, were called in, then all four began calling people asking them to donate their heavy equipment and personnel-and any other services or funds—on that Friday and Saturday in September.

“Of all the people I talked to, not a one said, ‘No,’” Alexander remembered. “We had one guy from outside the county participate and we didn’t even call him. Most significant of all was the community came together as a team-it really did much more than I expected.”

When those two days were done-and the work continued through a thunderstorm and ensuing rain-Massey, in his inimitable drawl said, “I never saw a piece of property change like that, and I’ve seen a lot of property.”

Bill Gordon, owner of Gordon’s Barber Shop, the crossroads for all community news, lives only a half mile from the park.

He said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was amazing to see how much work they had done,” and board of supervisor’s president Jimmy Smith called the change “mystical, magical, exciting and inspirational.”

The final accounting showed that 40 pieces of equipment valued at more than $3 million had been used. Estimates of that contribution alone exceeded $150,000.

“You have to realize that Friday was a work day for those people — they could have been making money — and on Saturday, they probably had to pay their drivers overtime,” Alexander said. “But what impressed me most was that every piece of equipment showed up with a full tank of gas, even though we had told them that gas would be provided.”

Among the 88 companies, organizations and individuals that contributed work, services and more than $5,000 in funds was Mike Crosby, a local accountant, who came with his tractor and bush hog. And the Russell Community Development Club baked cakes for all those volunteers.

Frank Thompson, president of the club — and also EMBDC’s manager of business development — said, “They were glad to do it. That was the way they could show support.”

EMBDC president Wade Jones said, “Everyone wanted to make a contribution to getting new industry in Lauderdale County and this was an opportunity to do that.”

Among those showing up to cheer the workers on was EMBDC chairman Glen Deweese — who passed away three weeks later — and Congressman Chip Pickering.

All the bulldozing, grubbing, bush hogging, tree-trimming and assorted other beautification work did cause some discomfort to, among others, a rattlesnake, a beehive, some wasp nests, yellow jackets-and a skunk. “You should have seen that skunk stop that bulldozer,” Alexander laughingly said.

Leaders are unanimous in agreeing that the newly beautified park has been a major need for Lauderdale County’s economic development efforts. Fluor Consulting recommended it as the prime site for the area.

Lying in the southeast part of Meridian, the attractive rolling property, commonly known as “The Malone Ranch,” is ideally located with U. S. 45 and U.S. 80 forming the west and north boundaries and Interstate 20/59 on the south side. The main rail line of the Norfolk Southern is just across U. S. 80.

Terrell Temple is chairman of the EMBDC’s committee overseeing the progress of the property-and also the engineer for the county board of supervisors. To avoid environmental and wetland problems, he had Mike Goff of the Vicksburg office of the U. S. Corps of Engineers over prior to the community work days. Goff pointed out the areas that were “sensitive” and had to be avoided.

Temple said, “Because of that, we only worked 340 acres because (1) we had to avoid those sensitive areas, (2) some (of the site) didn’t need any work, and (3) we only had two days.”

Which brings up the future.

Temple said that word is expected within the next six weeks on an application for $1 million with the Federal Highway Administration for the study of an interchange providing access to the interstate highways. And another application has been made to the Economic Development Administration for $1.8 million to complete plans for the City of Meridian to provide water and sewerage. That answer, too, is expected in six weeks.

And Alexander said, “Some people were left out (of the community work days) and that sure wasn’t intentional. They want to participate, so we’ll have another event like that one. It will be more strategic because we’ve gotten the general work done, so this will require specific kinds of equipment. With everyone’s enthusiasm, we will be successful.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com or (601) 485-7046. Johnson served as an economic development consultant in Starkville from August 1999-April 2000.

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