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Cluster initiative gaining ground

A story, dear readers:

A group of marine repair and retrofitting companies in Cairns, Australia, which had traditionally served the fishing fleet, were in jeopardy of closing in the late 1990s after the Great Barrier Reef area was declared ineligible for commercial fishing. Faced with a loss of three-quarters of their revenue, company representatives collaborated on a plan to address the problem.

As a result, the businesses entered an entirely new market — servicing “super yachts” that often sailed into the area — and billed themselves as the “Cairns Super Yacht Cluster.” The plan worked. At their first international boat show in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the group picked up $14 million in orders.

“That`s what we want to see happen in North Mississippi,” said Roger Clark, executive director of North Mississippi Industrial Development Association (NMIDA), the facilitation group for a regional cluster initiative developed last January. “This is about business and industry making money, being more profitable. From an economic developer`s perspective, it`s an existing industry support program.”

David Rumbarger, president of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, believes the initiative is a good idea.

“The success of such a venture lies in our ability to aid industry in working together for their mutual benefit in the future,” he said. “Many industries need help now; this is a strategy that can help. It will take a bit of coaxing to get the critical mass to be successful.”

A year ago, NMIDA, whose territory essentially covers the 34 Mississippi counties in the Tennessee Valley Authority service area, invited a small group of local developers to an introductory meeting headed by David Dodd, a Shreveport, La.-based consultant hired for the project, which was financed by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Mississippi Development Authority, Mississippi Technology Alliance and NMIDA.

“We told them, ‘it`s involved, not a quick-fix thing,’ and they were going to have to take on more work and be very involved,” said Clark. “I didn`t want to put it on the table without local developers being real partners in this deal.”

Because state officials had recently contracted professionals to study various clusters in the state, Dodd was able to immediately identify viable existing clusters in the region.

“It`s an important distinction that the analysis was wide open, that we were not focusing on a particular cluster,” said Clark. “Automotive is an emerging cluster, but right now it`s not the low-hanging fruit in North Mississippi.”

Dodd identified six industry clusters with potential for development: furniture, wood products, chemicals and plastics, transportation equipment, food processing and metal processing. Approximately 100 community and industry leaders attended a regional meeting last month at East Mississippi Community College`s Mayhew branch, where Dodd explained the regional cluster initiative and participants signed up for various clusters.

“Metal processing surprised us; it had the most signups,” said Clark. “Furniture was next, followed by wood products and transportation equipment, then chemicals and plastics. We don`t know how many clusters we`ll actually get moving, but if we get two or three, we feel it will be a success, and we`ll get some others later.”

Later this month, Dodd will help individual cluster groups, comprised of industry professionals, develop a business plan to identify ways to strengthen the cluster and ultimately each individual business, said Clark.

“Our time frame is to have clusters breathing and operating within the next four months,” he said.

Dodd said the outcome of the January meetings is critical.

“We need decision makers from companies within the clusters, along with key people who are committed to supporting these industries,” he said. “It`s time to put the ‘active’ in ‘active partnerships,’ the term we’ve used so often. We want to quickly get the issues, opportunities, and tasks out on the table, action teams formed to address them, and commitments to see them through.”

Most successful cluster-based efforts worked “when people committed to take action,” said Dodd.

“When they do, and in the process build trust in each other and in the entities that can support them, something magic happens,” he said. “That magic, call it social capital, innovation, or whatever you like, invariably means new jobs, more investment, and both healthy, growing existing businesses and new businesses large and small.”

For additional information about the North Mississippi Cluster Initiative, contact NMIDA at (662) 494-4633.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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