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Incentives could lead to more call centers for Mississippi

Jobs in manufacturing and shipbuilding have shrunk considerably in Jackson County in the past year. But a Cingular Wireless call center in Ocean Springs has helped pick up the slack, employing 770 at the facility that reaches its first anniversary August 20.

“Incoming call centers are a great way to put more diversity in the local economy,” said George Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation. “We’re coming up on 800 positions at Cingular, which rivals any sort of industrial location. In addition to direct jobs, the number of spinoff jobs in service and retail comes to about 400. So about 1,200 jobs have been created in Ocean Springs as a result of this call center location.”

Mississippi has attracted only a small number of projects like Cingular. Economic developers say that is partly because the state’s traditional financial incentives for business recruitment are structured around manufacturing operations.

“Competition for these sorts of facilities is fierce,” Freeland said. “Communities want these incoming call centers because they provide more value-type employment. The wages are higher than many other types of jobs in the community, and they are fairly stable jobs. This kind of development also promotes a positive image for the community.”

In the case of Cingular, it did classify as a telecommunications industry that allowed it exemptions from local property taxes, excluding school taxes. But incentives of the type available to the call center industry in other states aren’t available in Mississippi.

“The reality is that the competition for these types of facilities is so fierce and aggressive that we have to put a level of financial incentive on the table that will make us competitive,” Freeland said. “In terms of enhancing the tax base and even more particularly in terms of diversifying the economy, these kinds of incoming call centers are invaluable and need to be part of an overall economic development strategy.”

John Rucker, vice president of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, said recruiting incoming call centers is a new field for the state of Mississippi. He also advocates developing better incentives to attract businesses such as Starkville’s Service Zone (www.servicezone.com), a computer technical support center for computer manufacturers.

“Most of your computer manufacturers today contract for technical and customer support with businesses that do it exclusively rather than doing it themselves because their primary work is the design and manufacturing of those computers. They don’t really want to be in tech and customer support if they can contract to do it for less. It is just like anything else. If you are doing one thing and doing it well, stick to it. And that is what these call center companies are doing.”

Rucker says most of the 650 people working at Service Zone were unemployed or underemployed making only minimum wage. Now they are making in the range of $8.50 to $10 per hour. About 70 percent of the work force are minorities.

“Now they work in a beautiful environment while learning to work on a computer, learning how to talk on the phone, and really training themselves to step up to the next level in the job market,” Rucker said. “It does my heart good to see these wonderful jobs. It can be a good job if people stick with it. You have to be able to handle a telephone, and work with people as they work through a problem.”

Those 650 jobs in Starkville would not exist without the community putting in $2.8 million to build a building to attract the company. The Service Zone agreement involves guaranteeing 250 jobs for 10 years in return for providing the building. At the same time Service Zone located a tech support facility in Starkville, it located three similar facilities in Alabama. Rucker said Alabama has a much better program for attracting such developments.

“Service Zone looked at Mississippi for additional spots, but no one else here could come up with the $2.8 million,” Rucker said. “We need to come up with a program to have a real sincere effort to go after tech support centers in this state. For the most part we had to pay for this ourselves, but we may be up to 1,000 employees soon. It is one way we can go after the companies that have the ability to employ big numbers of people in smaller communities.

“The state needs to come up with a good plan to solicit these companies. That is the major problem because most communities don’t have the money to go out and buy these companies and, in some ways, that is what you are doing. You are buying Nissan and you are buying the rest of them.”

Previously some experts have said that the South is at a disadvantage attracting call centers because many residents have strong accents that are difficult for people elsewhere in the country to understand. But that hasn’t been a problem either in Starkville or Ocean Springs.

“That is the biggest myth of all,” Rucker said. “As long as you know what you are talking about, it doesn’t matter what your voice sounds like, as long as you have proper diction.”

Catherine Allen, director of customer operations for Cingular Wireless in Ocean Springs, said they haven’t found employees’ Southern accent to be a problem at all.

“In our first customer satisfaction survey we rated the highest of any Cingular facility in the company,” Allen said. “I feel that has a lot to do with employees we have here, and the Southern hospitality mind set.”

In Ocean Springs, Cingular Wireless has now become the largest employer in the town. Employment varies and has ranged higher than that. That compares to the Ocean Springs hospital with 700 employees and the Ocean Springs Schools with 600 employees.

“The Cingular Wireless center has been very positive for the area,” said Gaye Aultman, assistant director, Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce. “They are good neighbors. Practically from the day they opened they have had employees working in different civic groups.”

Aultman said this kind of environmentally clean industry is the type that best fits Ocean Springs, which prides itself on being an art community with a high quality of life.

The Cingular Wireless building is housed in a former Wal-Mart. Earlier this year the Mississippi Mainstreet Association awarded Cingular Wireless the “Big Box Adaptive Re-Use” award for the state.

“They realize Ocean Springs is very much into clean and green, and their adaptive reuse fits the theme from beginning to end,” Aultman said. “They have done everything to fit the image of Ocean Springs including installing extensive landscaping. The building is very open and filled with light. It is a clean, pleasant working environment.”

Allen said when people do tours of the building, no one can believe it was a Wal-Mart. “Even on the outside, unless you know, it is hard to image it was a Wal-Mart before,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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