As the guessing game continues — will Hyundai choose Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio or Mississippi? — economic developers and politicians are laying the groundwork for future developments, particularly in East Central Mississippi.
“It’s no secret that a group of us were in Seoul, South Korea, (in early February),” said U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi). “We met with the president of South Korea and members of their national assembly, their speaker and our military commander in that region. We also met with Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-koo, looked at one of their plants in South Korea, and had a very good exchange. Other states have already been there, or maybe will visit, but I feel like we’re doing a good job and are making an effort to be attractive to these additional international companies. We’ve still got a piece to go, but we’re in the hunt.”
While the answer should be evident within the next few months, speculation has swirled about the possible Hyundai site in Mississippi. Even if it is not in the running, the strategic location of Scott and Rankin counties is a good possibility. If not Hyundai, the area lends itself to Nissan suppliers and future industrial developments.
In Rankin County’s two government-held industrial parks, Pelahatchie Industrial Park has approximately 12 acres available and East Metropolitan Center, a 1,000-acre industrial park located at 1-20 and Crossgates in Brandon, home of General Motors’ regional office and distribution complex, has about 700 acres available. Several large parcels of land are available in the county for industrial development in both privately owned industrial parks and privately-owned open land.
“The industrial climate slowed down during the summer,” said Tom Troxler, executive director of Rankin First Economic Development Authority. “With the announcements of tier one suppliers to Nissan and tier twos starting to look for locations, it’s picking up. I think any area between the Honda and Mercedes plants in Alabama and the Nissan plant in Canton stands to get some looks from automotive suppliers, especially the Rankin area. Large distributors would find it a good place with its proximity to two interstates, the airport and railroads.”
Pelahatchie Mayor Knox Ross Jr. said Nissan suppliers have inquired about available land in the Pelahatchie Industrial Park, “but I don’t think they’ll work out.”
“We’ve been trying to identify a good industrial site,” Ross said. “We’ve been working with Rankin First very closely and have gotten some assistance from the state telling us what companies are looking for. They want interstate frontage and rail access and water and sewer on site. We have an area that we’ve done some preliminary engineering work on right by the interstate at the Pelahatchie exit and back to the east a little. We’ve got agreements with the landowner to be able to go ahead and show it. We’re also working with Congressman (Chip) Pickering’s office to beef up the utilities in the area.”
Ross said the city wants to develop the property “as a light industrial park with 10 to 15 acre lots.”
“We’ve talked to several landowners about options or agreements on other pieces of land and we don’t have any written agreements yet, but we’re actively pursuing it,” he said.
In Scott County, the U.S. government is the largest landowner with the Bienville National Forest.
“Companies sometimes do land swaps with the national forest if needed, but only along the fringe areas,” said Jimmy Lovett, a Morton real estate professional. “I don’t know of any large tracts that have been swapped out of the forest lately.”
When asked about land in east Scott County, O.B. Triplett, owner of Triplett Realty in Forest, said, “We have a number of large tracts in the area but I don’t know how available they are.”
Morton Mayor Greg Butler said the city owns about 200 acres east of town that was originally the site for a wastewater treatment plant.
“We’re now turning that into an industrial park,” he said. “It’s cleared off, but we’re going to have to get infrastructure to it and see what it will cost to turn it into an industrial park. We’ve owned it for 16 or 17 years and it hasn’t been used for nine or 10 years. It’s only about two-tenths of a mile off Highway 80 and we need to make it happen.”
In Morton, Peavey Electronics shut down a 48,000-square-foot building last December, and 74 people lost their jobs. International Paper recently announced it was closing its Morton plant, and 185 workers will be laid off. Superior Machine recently closed its plant, affecting 11 jobs.
In addition to space available after plant closures, 17 acres is available at an existing park in Morton, Butler said.
“That’s not much,” he said. “If someone wants 50 or 100 acres, we want to accommodate them.”
Patsy Nicholson of the Forest Area Chamber of Commerce said 325 jobs that were lost when Choctaw Maid burned last year were regained when it opened a new facility earlier this month, providing 475 jobs.
“When they complete expansion of the kill part of the operation, Choctaw Maid will employ 700,” she said. “Unipres recently brought in 125 jobs, so we’ll soon be up over last year.”
Rose Hawkins, vice president of administration for Unipres Southeast USA Inc., said the company decided to open its 150,000-square-foot facility in Forest because of its strategic location and the possibility for more business, including Hyundai, if the Korean company chooses Mississippi or Alabama as its automotive plant site.
“The Tennessee Unipres plant also has business coming on line with the Honda plant in Ohio,” she said. “We have experience as a tier two supplier to Mercedes. We could pursue business with Mercedes and Honda in Alabama, so being east of Jackson was advantageous for future growth opportunities for Unipres.”
The Forest plant, Unipres’ second U.S. plant, won’t have any presses. Instead, the plant will ship in press panels to run through its highly technical assembly line. Other Unipres plants are located in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Japan.
Hawkins said she’s not concerned about the possibility of a Hyundai plant coming to the area and drawing qualified workers.
“Our wages and benefits are going to be comparable to Raytheon in Scott County,” she said. “So we’ll be able to attract and retain solid employees.”
Calls to the Mid-Mississippi Development District and the East Central Mississippi Economic Council, which was established several years ago to court suppliers for the Mercedes plant in Alabama, were not returned by press time.
The Mississippi Development Authority does not comment on speculative or pending economic development projects.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org</a.