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Economic developers report positive signs of improving economy

While significant job losses continue to be seen in manufacturing, there is a growing light at the end of the tunnel, say some economic developers in the state. Industrial recruitment activity is on the upswing, and some plants are calling back people who have been laid off.

“Yes, we are seeing promising signs the economy is improving,” said Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Vicksburg-Warren County Economic Development Foundation and a member of Governor-elect Haley Barbour’s transition team. “In the past 10 days we have been working with three expansions and shortly we will announce another new industry in Vicksburg/Warren County. We have had a net gain of about 1,500 new jobs over the past year and a half.”

Some companies are planning expansions and others are bringing back workers or shelving plans to close. Heidel said they have opportunities to get Vicksburg Chemical back on line. And Hebeler Corp., which had announced in September that it was going to close, has now indicated profits are up, and they are going to continue to operate.

“We’re working nine industrial prospects right now,” Heidel said. “So things have picked up pretty good over here. Yorozu Automotive Mississippi, one of Nissan’s suppliers, originally planned to employ 140 people. But they are at 250 and growing because of additional contracts they have been able to secure. All those are positive, positive signs.”

Heidel said it is too early to say what Barbour’s focus will be in economic development. But according to his campaign, he plans to focus on workforce training and a more business friendly atmosphere in Mississippi.

“I think there are some things that can be done to improve the business climate,” Heidel said. “I believe we will see continued growth and expansion of industry. If you look at the national economic news, productivity is good and demand for products is rising. I met recently with an existing company that wants to expand. They are totally sold out of all production and are working seven days per week to fill the orders coming in. That is a very good sign for manufacturing in the near future.”

Improvements in commodity prices have been a big benefit to Mississippi agriculture and agribusinesses. For example, Mississippi Chemical is bringing back several hundred workers at its facility in Yazoo City.

The Nissan plant in Canton continues to spur economic activity in the region.

“Madison County certainly is experiencing significant growth,” said Jerry G. Acy, executive director, Madison County Economic Development Authority. “A lot of that is attributed to Nissan and the supplier activity, and other resulting developments just by the sheer magnitude of the number of employees and amount of traffic, and anticipation of continued growth and development. We have a lot of natural growth that has taken place anyhow as part of the metro area.”

Acy said while their experience is skewed somewhat because of Nissan, he believes more than that is going on. Industrial site visit activity is high.

“I personally feel like there is a definite turnaround in the economy,” Acy said. “We’re just real optimistic about what is happening here, and anticipate a strong local economy.”

Franklyn Tate, deputy director of planning and development, City of Jackson, said the Nissan plant is providing some stability in the local economy.

“Even though the plant is outside of the City of Jackson, I think we are still benefiting,” Tate said. “We have managed to get suppliers to locate in our industrial park, in addition to those located at the plant. Our level of unemployment has been stable. It certainly hasn’t increased any. I think all in all we’re faring pretty well.”

Tate said the City of Jackson has an aggressive downtown revitalization program underway. He believes once they are successful in getting some downtown housing and attract more retail to downtown Jackson, there will be a major upsurge in the local economy and downtown.

“We think that is important because Jackson is and forever will be the capital city,” Tate said. “What we’re seeking is to get a good blend of public-private partnerships and projects.”

Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, said the county has seen three straight quarters of positive economic indicators.

“Retail sales and building permits, as examples, have all shown dramatic increases in Harrison County,” Olivier said. “Residential building permits have increased 82% over 2002 and commercial building permits have increased 45% over the same period last year. Gaming revenue, an indicator of tourism volume, still has posted increases for the Gulf Coast region, albeit smaller than in past years. The fact that gross gaming revenues have maintained their level in excess of the $1+ billion mark, despite a national recession, speaks very positively to our appeal as a destination. We look for revenues to increase in the fourth quarter and into 2004.

“We also look for growth in the plastics and polymer science cluster, as Oreck and other companies’ product lines and missions expand.”

Olivier said the county is making significant inroads in the international manufacturing arena and also expect to see more activity in the commercial sector.

“Currently, there are over $1 billion in new commercial projects proposed in Harrison County,” Olivier said. “These projects range from new casino resorts to luxury condominiums to new family-oriented enterprises to retail. This is an indication that developers and investors see untapped market potential here and another growth swing in the near future.”

Olivier said the best strategy to attract new economic development is to build on your strengths through cluster-based development. For each company that locates or is located in a community, vendors and suppliers are needed.

“It is also important to take new technology being implemented locally and promote that to companies in other industries to encourage their ‘clustering’ near these sector leaders,” Olivier said. “We are already implementing this strategy in the composites, plastics and gaming industries. However, no matter what type of strategy you implement, without a long-term view of economic development and a dedicated approach to follow-up, no economic development strategy will succeed. Regular contact with prospects over the long haul is how you build relationships and ultimately, business for your community.”

Gray Swoope, president of the Area Development Partnership (ADP) in Hattiesburg, agrees that it is important to keep regular contact with prospective industries.

“In economic development, follow up is key,” Swoope said. “The ADP has developed a superb database that allows us to continue marketing to consultants and companies with a past interest in the area.

“The ADP has always been a very focused organization. Each year our economic development team develops its marketing strategy and plans the year accordingly. We constantly promote the region’s strengths and its role as a thriving educational sector, growing transportation hub and center for polymer/plastics expertise.”

The ADP reports strong commercial retail activity in the region combined with a positive trend in sales tax collections.

“However, the manufacturing sector is still lagging,” Swoope said. “We continue to work with our existing industries on retention projects and strategies to help them compete with other facilities for jobs. New projects are filtering in much better than last year, but still have not reached the levels of 2000-2001.”

Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones Cou
nty,
also see signs that the economy is rebounding, but says he doesn’t know how strong the upswing will be.

“Want ads in the employment section of the local newspapers have increased and two of our larger

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