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Significant changes, common goals mark region’s development

Perhaps no other region of the state has experienced as many significant changes in the last decade as the Pine Belt. Shifts in power locally, regionally and statewide have contrasted the spirit of cooperation that has evolved between neighboring economic development entities.

Industry and population shifts have added to the mix, especially in rural communities that have struggled because of the loss of manufacturing jobs and other challenges.

In the early 1990s, a multi-county organization was established to promote the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Strategic Petroleum Reserve Project in Perry County. Soon after President Bill Clinton took office, the project died, but the Southeast Mississippi Economic Development Network continued to function as a regional economic development organization, and added counties until nine were represented — Covington, Forrest, Jefferson Davis, Jones, Lamar, Marion, Pearl River, Perry and Wayne. The group, led this year by Area Development Partnership (ADP) president Gray Swoope of Hattiesburg, meets periodically and continues to collaborate on recruiting and marketing projects.

“It’s a good arrangement for us,” said Joe Johnson, executive director of the Wayne County Economic Development District. “We all work independently, but we work on common issues and projects together. We’ve been on recruiting trips together to Canada, Michigan and other places and we share leads. If we need help, we call. For example, we lost a glove factory that had been here 50 years. It was built for sewing with nine-foot ceilings and low lights and was not conducive to forklifts. We have two four-lanes coming through now, but it’s not interstate and some people won’t even look at a location that’s not on an interstate. The network is helping us. So is the Mississippi Development Authority, which has an office in Hattiesburg and works this whole area.”

Before the network took shape, Hattiesburg and Laurel had a sometimes strained relationship.

“We have a really good working relationship and we’ll continue to work on common problems and goals for Southeast Mississippi, such as the I-59MS corridor,” said Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority (EDA) of Jones County.

Forrest and Jones counties have been the primary drivers behind the newly-created Mississippi I-59 technology corridor, which connects more than 400 technology companies employing more than 11,000 people that dot the interstate from Meridian to the Gulf Coast. It is a partnership between East Mississippi Business Development Authority in Meridian, ADP, EDA of Jones County and Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.

“Working together has helped us identify high-tech companies because you don’t just drive up to them,” said Swoope. “They’re emerging. It has also allowed us to establish technology councils so we can identify more companies that can share the synergy to build an economy around technology.”

Until recently, the relationship had been rather tense between Hattiesburg and Lamar County, the fastest growing county in the region.

“Over the three decades I’ve been here, Hattiesburg and Lamar County have had a rather rocky relationship,” said Dr. Joe Parker, professor of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Annexation battles have been exacerbated by the fact that the city has annexed land around Highway 98 to take in car dealerships, hotels and retail establishments, taking away the plum and negating the possibility of incorporation of communities like Oak Grove, for example. When Mayor Johnny Dupree ran on a ‘go-slow on annexation’ platform and then as mayor emphasized a more cooperative relationship, it evolved into a win-win kind of notion as opposed to zero sum.”

The Lamar County Economic Development District recently contracted with ADP to market its industrial properties. ADP changed its by-laws to add Lamar County to its board structure, said Swoope.

“Ten years ago, ADP leaders envisioned working closely with Lamar County,” he said. “We’re finally working together as two counties in one market, which is how clients see us, and it is a significant milestone for the organization.”

For the last two legislative sessions, ADP, Coast 21 and Harrison County leaders have collaborated on common issues impacting south Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, said Swoope.

“We don’t have a formal relationship or an elected chair,” he said. “We’re simply business leaders from south Mississippi working together to promote the state and to make sure we’re working on issues that affect the economy in South Mississippi.”

Issue No. 1: education

“We have to address, and are addressing, the skill levels of our workforce,” said Stennett. “If we ever hope to get an automotive plant or a high-tech plant, we’ve got to make sure that not only the educational levels, but skill levels, are enhanced. That doesn’t mean the current people can’t do that. It just means maybe they need some upgrade training. We have an excellent junior college to do that. The Advanced Technology Center in Howard Technology Park will also go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor approved a $921,000 grant that will help defray infrastructure costs for the $6-million center. During the 1999 legislative session, state lawmakers appropriated $4 million in bond money for Jones County Junior College (JCJC) to build the center for the eight-county district. About $2 million has been raised locally. Construction will begin next June on the 15-acre site in the 504-acre park that will be anchored by Howard Computers, a division of Howard Industries.

“The business community was instrumental in helping us secure money from the state,” said Dr. Ronald Whitehead, JCJC president. “They were the engine that pushed it. And the capital funds campaign has been an involvement for everyone. All of our folks are very interested in doing what they can to enhance job opportunities. It’s a known fact that more jobs are created through industry expansion and entrepreneurial startups than folks moving in, and we’ll be pursuing it on all those fronts.”

Until the trend is reversed, the high dropout rate will continue to affect the potential quality of the workforce.

“That’s pretty much a given,” said Whitehead. “We have adult basic education and GED preparatory classes ongoing on campus and in the counties of our district. We try to get high school dropouts through the GED program and make attempts to enroll them in JCJC to prepare them to pursue a university degree or a technical career program. We’re in the process of purchasing a van that will have computer capabilities to travel around the counties and to remote sites for training.”

Issue No. 2: transportation

Like most regional airports, Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport was reporting record numbers before Sept. 11. Dave Senne, the executive director, left recently. Only one carrier, Masaba, an affiliate of Northwest Airlines, remains, and the number of daily flights have been cut from four to two.

“They’re in a search mode for an executive director who is aggressive and will follow the will of the community,” said Stennett. “Just recently, the federal government declared this a subsidy airport and Masaba decided to stay here. That was a big step.”

Before four-lane work began recently, highway transportation had been a problem in Wayne County and other rural areas, said Johnson.

“Within a year and a half, we’ll have all our four-lanes completed within the county and we’ll have county access east-west and north-south of High
ways
45 and 84,” he said. “That will be a big plus for us.”

If the Kansas City Southern Rail Line is upgraded as planned, Hattiesburg will have better and faster connectivity to the coast. But the project may not move forward unti

About Lynne W. Jeter

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