MERIDIAN – When the creation of an East Mississippi-West Alabama regional economic development cooperative agreement was announced last April, many people wondered if the mutually beneficial alliance was little more than a political ploy by then Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who was seeking re-election in a heated contest against Republican contender Haley Barbour.
But less than a month after Barbour was inaugurated as Mississippi governor, he addressed more than 300 participants in a bi-state summit, signaling the pact was moving forward.
“A one size-fits-all economic development plan doesn`t work for a diverse state,” said Barbour. “We have to develop a strategy for each area of the state. The strategy for East Mississippi is to form a partnership with Alabama.”
Congressional representatives and regional, state and local business leaders also participated in the second annual summit of the Commission on the Future of East Mississippi and West Alabama, held Feb. 6 at the University of West Alabama. L-3 AeroTech was corporate sponsor of the summit, which was funded in part by grants from The Phil Hardin Foundation and The Riley Foundation. The Montgomery Institute in Meridian spearheaded the first summit, held at the MSU-Meridian campus last year.
Barbour told attendees that he supports an interstate highway connecting Meridian and Montgomery. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican who took office last January, also reinforced his blessing of extending Interstate 85 from Montgomery to Interstate 20/59 east of Meridian.
Several months ago, Alabama Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby had garnered congressional approval – but no appropriations – to extend I-85 from Montgomery to I-20/59. Having all four-lane interstate traffic between Montgomery and Meridian would expedite travel and potentially lure big business.
While the majority of the road would be in Alabama, the governor said it would bring great benefits to Mississippi.
“It would complete the triangle that would connect the Mercedes plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Hyundai Plant in Montgomery and the Nissan plant in Canton,” he said. “It will bring them all together at the state line.”
A major bi-state industrial park has been considered for the 16-county region of East Mississippi and West Alabama that sits in the center of the southern automotive corridor, but no specific site or plans were discussed at the summit.
“We are well placed on the automotive corridor geographically, transportation-wise and with available workforce, but there are other industries that would benefit from the location, not just automotive,” said Phil Sutphin, president of East Central Community College and commission chairman.
Some critics pointed to the length of time it has taken to get water and sewer service to the Interstate 20/59 Industrial Park. The East Mississippi Business Development Corp. (EMBDC) and Lauderdale County bought the land in 2000, and the City of Meridian is responsible for providing the water and sewer service.
“We would need cooperation from Alabama and Mississippi to insure infrastructure is there when and if we find a location,” said Sutphin.
So with all these mitigating factors, what are the realities of economic development across state lines?
“Any joint effort like this has to be grounded in mutual trust,” said Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith. “That`s hard enough to do within state boundaries, much less crossing over state lines. However, the two states collectively can offer a better package financially, educationally, infrastructure-wise and politically than either can individually.”
Smith said the idea for the collaboration between Mississippi and Alabama emerged several years ago in a conversation at Northwood Country Club between prominent West Alabama attorney Drayton Pruitt, EMBDC president Wade Jones, then EMBDC chairman Tommy Dulaney, Meridian accountant Bob Ray and himself.
“We talked about the fact that the western part of Alabama`s future was closely tied to Meridian`s,” he said. “West Alabamians already shop here, work here and get medical care here.”
Earlier this month, Business Xpansion Journal reported that Mississippi was popping up worldwide on site selectors’ radar screens, and economic developers in Meridian were planning to option more than 1,000 acres located on the Mississippi and Alabama state line. The journal discussed the collaborative effort between EMBDC and Mississippi State University to develop a logistics model to show the city`s logistics cost advantages.
Chicago Consulting, producer of an annual report on the 10 best warehouse/distribution networks in the country for retailers, recommended Meridian as the premier southern site for companies needing four separate warehouse locations in the U.S. The other cities listed for locating facilities were Palmdale, Calif., Edison, N.J., and Chicago.
Fortune magazine plans to feature the historic bi-state pact.
“We’re charting a course nobody else has done before because we’re crossing state lines,” said EMBDC president Wade Jones.
“I believe the plan will work,” he said. “While there are 38,000 people in Meridian and 78,000 in Lauderdale County, there are 440,000 people within 65 miles. That population supports a major medical center, a retail center that since 1997 has seen significant growth through a regional mall, Super Wal-Mart, Super Lowe`s and Sam`s Club. We have two interstates (and four-lane Highway 45) and are a major railroad hub and have jet service with three flights a day to Atlanta. We recently validated a labor study that shows the available workforce is here in the region.”
Smith said Meridian`s retail and medical growth could not possibly have been as successful “without our neighbors from Alabama.”
“They bring contributions to the table, including a workforce,” he said. “We need each other. Yes, it`s tricky in its implementation but we’ve learned enough as two regions that we’re prepared to take this step. And the feds always smile more broadly on economic development initiatives that cross jurisdictional lines. Especially when there`s two states involved, that`s even better.”
Gil Carmichael, president of Missouth Development Company in Meridian, said he`s glad the area is finally being realized as “a cohesive region.”
“The Selma Chalk outcropping under this area is perfect for building on,” he said. “We shouldn`t have any trouble for an industrial site.
This is the strategic center of the South.”
Neal Wade, director of the Alabama Development Office, said that since the agreement was signed last June to market the entire border region between Mississippi and Alabama, progress has been made “fairly aggressively.”
“In fact, we’ve even had some projects already come into the area with people who have been interested in sites along the state border,” he said.
Sutphin said it would be the commission`s responsibility “to keep the plan before the public and the eyes of those with influence who can bring results.”
The 41-member commission includes the presidents of eight area institutions of higher learning, a representative of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and two representatives each from Clarke, Jasper, Kemper, Lauderdale, Leake, Neshoba, Newton, Noxubee, Scott and Winston counties in Mississippi, and Choctaw, Greene, Hale, Marengo, Perry and Sumter counties in Alabama.
“The biggest hurdle that needed to be addressed was the political will of everyone involved in both states and that has been resolved,” said Smith. “Obviously, both state legislatures have to be involved in putting together packages. From what I hear from Mississippi legislators, they not only understand but embrace the idea of crossing jurisdictional barriers to create economic potential.”
MDA chief Leland R. Speed said it is vitally important to develop partnerships within the state, and across state borders to improve the economic opportunities for Mississippi citizens.
“By aligning ourselves with our neighboring states, we can further enhance Mississippi`s economic climate for competition in the global
arketplace,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.