PHILADELPHIA — The East Central Mississippi Economic Council (ECMEC) seems to defy gravity and human nature. It’s now 10 years old and predictions that the 16-county group would fracture due to its large number of counties and diversity have been laid to waste.
ECMEC does include almost 20% of the state’s 82 counties and is diverse. Its boundaries extend in a rough semi-circle that includes Clarke County on the south, Rankin County on the west and Clay County on the north. But the organization has proven that economic developers can work together — and over a long-term period.
They’ve had booths at auto shows in Detroit, Birmingham and Nashville and have cooperated in a feasibility study for an area location for auto parts plants. And they had the foresight to be the first Mississippi group to court Alabama’s Mercedes plant seeking suppliers to that facility.
Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Authority, has been the organization’s president for the past six years. He points out that ECMEC is a refreshing innovation that belies the previous cut-throat competition and “every man for himself” attitude among developers.
ECMEC’s most recent initiative was to host a group of economic development consultants on a familiarization tour of the region. The event came off July 30 and August 1, with Neshoba County’s Silver Star Hotel and Casino as headquarters. There were seven consultants-some from as far away as Chicago-representing six firms.
Frank Thompson is the director of business development for Meridian’s East Mississippi Business Development Corporation (EMBDC) and helped plan the event. “We wanted to keep the number low and manageable and we figured the ideal number would be eight,” he said. “So seven worked just fine.”
Thompson gives Mississippi Development Authority regional director Gerald Mills much of the credit for getting the attendance of the consultants. “Gerald had previous good relationships with them,” he said.
Among the unique characteristics of the event was the combination of the posh Silver Star facilities with the heat, grit and charm of the Neshoba County Fair. There was golf at the luxurious Dancing Rabbit course and a reception and gourmet dinner at the Silver Star. The visits to the Fair included a night fish fry and a luncheon that involved economic developers from all over the state.
According to Thompson, “The unique atmosphere and legendary hospitality just bowled them over. They were just treated royally. And they were smitten by the Fair.”
Business was taken care of with helicopter tours of the 16 counties. Each county showed off their prime industrial site and the best available building. Pictures and data on the two were provided.
“This was a unique opportunity to show off our region to important people who can be very influential in location decisions,” EMBDC president Wade Jones said. “Furthermore, we got to know these consultants on a personal level through the activities they enjoyed while in our area.”
Many of the costs of the event were underwritten by sponsors of various activities who support the regional approach. The Mississippi Development Authority was an overall sponsor, TVA provided the helicopters for the tours, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians sponsored the reception, Mississippi Power Company sponsored the golf outing and TVA, Central Electric Power Association and Philadelphia Utilities sponsored the fish fry. Yates Construction Company contributed financial assistance and Tolbert Chevrolet provided vans for transportation.
VIPs attending the Thursday night dinner included Congressman Chip Pickering, TVA chair Glenn McCullough, TVA director Skila Harris, Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin, Mississippi Power Company president Mike Garrett and Yates Construction Company president Bill Yates.
Everyone worked together
Linda Shepard has been involved in economic development in Carthage for more than 30 years and has been involved in ECMEC since its inception. She’s the director of the Leake County Industrial Development Authority.
“Our organization couldn’t possibly have done something like this by ourselves,” Shepard said. “Anytime we can work together on a regional basis, it creates a win-win situation. One of those consultants has a lot of European connections and this helped him learn about the South, especially our area.”
And Glenn McCullough’s remarks at the dinner impressed her. “He told the consultants ‘We believe that you’ll be successful by recommending our area for plant locations and we know that will benefit you…and us.’”
Sharon Chalk is the community assistant for the MDA’s Meridian regional field office and handled much of the staff work.
She said, “Those guys had a wonderful time. They had never seen anything like that (the Neshoba County Fair). And it helped the rest of the state because they were able to meet a lot of other Mississippi economic developers at the Thursday lunch.”
As for problems, the only one Frank Thompson can remember was the torrential rain at the Wednesday night fish fry.
“But that was a typical Fair happening,” he said. “It didn’t bother anybody and it just enhanced the experience.”
All of the ECMEC developers are veterans, so none of them expect immediate results from the event, but hope springs eternal. “The main thing is that they’re now informed about our area,” Thompson said.
“Surprisingly, we’ve had a visit by a code-named project (translation: a super-secret and possibly huge plant) since then which is being handled by one of the consultants. They came and looked at some property, but we’re not sure it had anything to do with our fam-tour.”
The event is sure to be repeated next year. Sharon Chalk said, “Oh yeah! I’ve already seen a copy of a letter that Charleigh Ford wrote to (one of the consultants) assuring him that we’ll do it again. That consultant is the one that said he’s going to bring his wife next year because she would enjoy it so much. And we can show off the Golden Moon then.”
So ECMEC continues to defy its critics and is proving that “all for one” regional cooperation can be successful.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at email@example.com.