When George Freeland first arrived to take over as the new executive director of the Jackson County Education Development Foundation (EDF) nearly three years ago, within 48 hours the county suffered a crushing economic blow with the closure of one of its oldest and largest industries, International Paper (IP) in Moss Point.
But in a classic case of taking a problem and turning it into an asset, the former IP site is now one of the largest brownfield redevelopments in the state and region. Brownfield is a term for former industry sites that are cleaned up and prepared for reuse.
“The current redevelopment of the International Paper site is going to prove to be one of the more significant brownfield projects in the South,” Freeland said. “The demolition crews are out there right now taking down an 80-year-old paper mill so we can install modern industrial facilities. Within 12 to 18 months the old IP will be turned into a modern industrial facility, taking what was previously a dilapidated industrial site and putting the property back into commerce. I could talk all day about the significance of this property.”
The county has already attracted one tenant. The British company Corus Bi-Steel has committed to a $30-million capital investment for a facility to manufacture construction panels used to blast proof embassies, government buildings and other structures that need protection.
Freeland said Corus Bi-Steel is in the process of working to resolve some ownership issues, and is considering a partnership with a group of domestic investors.
“Hopefully their initial sales and engineering staff will be here by June of this year,” he said.
The redevelopment of the IP site takes a liability and turns it into a win-win situation for IP and the community.
“We had to find a way to put that property back into commerce,” Freeland said. “Jackson County is blessed with many natural resources. But as a part of that, we have many areas that are ecologically sensitive in the 1-10 corridor. The question is how we develop properties to attract new industrial investment while also preserving our important natural areas.”
Another factor was that IP had to find a way to limit its financial and legal liability over the years to come. Limiting environmental exposure was certainly one of their concerns. Freeland said the county addressed that by partnering with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for redevelopment of the site.
Freeland said while tests revealed the need for some remediation of wastes, environmentally the site is relatively clean. While Jackson County paid $3 million for the site, IP is responsible for cleanup and demolition.
“We feel what we were able to achieve was to satisfy both the company`s needs and the community`s needs,” Freeland said.
The redevelopment of the IP site has focused first on the 32-acre site for Corus Bi-Steel. There are about 160 more acres available for development, leaving room for several more industries. The property is in a prime location on the shore of the Escatawpa River allowing barge access on a federally maintained channel. There is also easy access to Interstate 10 on the north, and a rail access including a Mississippi Export Railroad line and a spur to the CSX railroad line that parallels Hwy. 90.
Freeland faced an uphill battle coming on the job to lead economic development in the county because of the dearth of available industrial sites. Although Jackson County is known as the most industrial county in the state, it also has large amounts of wetlands, waterways and other environmentally sensitive areas such as state and national wildlife refuges that can make permitting large projects difficult.
“The fact is we have had, up to this point, very little planned industrial property on which we can site new and particularly diversified industrial property,” Freeland said. “The significance of the redevelopment of former the IP site is that it is an environmentally sound project. From an economic developer`s perspective, this is a good case of having your cake and eating it too. You can attract jobs and investment in way that represents good, environmentally sound land use planning. Nationally the environmental community is encouraging us to do just this, redevelop brownfields instead of developing greenfields. In a larger sense, we hope we can recognize the significance of this model for sustainable economic development.”
Jackson County`s economic development efforts also got a lift recently when VT Halter Marine announced it was closing its operations in Gulfport and consolidating them to Pascagoula and Moss Point. No one is being laid off, but about 100 jobs will be moved from Gulfport to Jackson County.
“The Economic Development Foundation could not be more pleased than to know that consolidation is part of the long-term VT Halter Marine business strategy, and we know Jackson County employees of VT Halter Marine will continue to provide quality products for customers worldwide,” Freeland said. “The Economic Development Foundation is convinced this is a reflection of the economic development climate in Jackson County.”
VT stands for Vision Technology Systems Inc., which is a subsidiary of Singapore Technologies Engineering. That defense company purchased Halter Marine following the 2001 bankruptcy of Friede Goldman Halter.
There has also been an announcement recently of an $18-million expansion of Rolls Royce Naval Marine Inc. facility on Industrial Road in Pascagoula. The company said the 18,000-square-foot expansion that will take 18 months to complete will house one of the world`s most advanced and largest numerical control machines able to manufacture a set of aircraft carrier propellers in just four months. Four propellers can be manufactured in four months compared to the year`s time it takes to make four propellers currently.
“That expansion is the tip of the iceberg in regards to Rolls Royce Naval Marine,” Freeland said. “We are convinced there are going to be bigger and better developments coming out of Rolls Royce Naval Marine.”
The Jackson County EDF also foresees some significant economic development announcements occurring early in the second quarter of this year pertaining to a major aviation technology and manufacturing facility at a proposed site at the Trent Lott International Airport.
Jerry St. P