Fulton — After four years with the Itawamba County Development Council (ICDC), as a grant writer, community development manager and six months as interim director, Carol Farris was named the permanent executive director.
“We’ve met most of our 2004 goals already,” ICDC president Steven Staub said in May. “It’s an honor to remove the ‘interim’ from her title.”
A native of Itawamba County, Farris earned a business administration degree from the University of Mississippi and an MBA from Christian Brothers University in Memphis. She is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi New South Economic Development Course, where she received the Ray and Jimmy Heidel Leadership Award in recognition of emerging economic development leaders, and the University of Oklahoma Economic Development Institute.
Farris faces many challenges recruiting and expanding business and industry in this rural northeast Mississippi county with three towns — Fulton, Mantachie and Tremont. Two-thirds of the land area consists of commercial forests. Approximately 27% of the population of 23,000 works in the manufacturing sector, and the per capita annual income is slightly more than $20,000. There are no hospitals in Itawamba County; Fulton has three banks. The ICDC does not have any industrial buildings for lease or purchase. The highly touted new PeopLoungers plant that opened less than a year ago closed earlier this month.
However, the possibility of a future interstate through Itawamba County is becoming more likely, if U.S. 78 is designated Interstate 22. Port Itawamba is seeing increased activity with the construction of a 60-ton bridge crane underway. And PeopLoungers should reopen by the end of the year. The Mississippi Business Journal asked Farris about these challenges, and why “coming home” was so important.
Mississippi Business Journal: Why was it so important to you to “come home” as an economic developer in Itawamba County?
Carol Farris: The highlight of working in economic development is that you get to see the reward of the hours you spend in the office paid out by the number of ribbon cuttings at new businesses, the number of new jobs brought into your area by industry and the community support programs, which benefit area residents. Aside from the time that I was away at college, I’ve always lived in Itawamba County. I knew that I wanted to return to Itawamba and be of service to the county. I love the people here and the quality of life that our county offers.
MBJ: What assets does the county have to offer prospective companies searching for new locations?
CF: Itawamba County’s people are traditional, hardworking citizens.
Itawamba is a capable distributor of goods on both national and international scales. Our county is the center point on U.S. 78, an interstate-rated highway, giving industrial residents four-lane access between Memphis and Birmingham. Our multi-modal port provides truck, rail and water cargo handling, warehousing and logistics services. And, we have a new 102-acre industrial park that is located in a prime area just off U.S. 25.
Itawamba Community College, located in Fulton, provides area industries with employee training and continuing education opportunities.
Itawamba has not only one desirable characteristic to offer prospective companies, we have the complete package.
MBJ: The ICDC boasts Port Itawamba. What improvements have been made to the port recently and what are some future plans for development?
CF: The port has recently seen construction completed on a 60-ton bridge crane structure that extends 120 feet from our bank located on the east side of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and 90 feet over the water. We are also in the final phase of construction, which will add 3,600 feet of rail spur through our port industrial area, allowing rail access to public docks and a barge hauler, which will aid in more efficient loading and unloading of barges. We have also had preliminary studies done regarding the feasibility of constructing an additional warehouse at the port.
As more and more inventory shipments are completed via cargo containers, Port Itawamba will prove itself to not only be an asset to our county, but also to industrial customers in the north Mississippi region.
MBJ: Tell us about the small business planning service that the ICDC offers and why the council offers it?
CF: The ICDC places a great deal of focus in the area of small business and small business development. We partner with the Small Business Development Center in Oxford and several state and local agencies to provide guidance in the area of capital funding for start-up operations.
However, we understand that the most critical time for small business owners is within the first year of operation. During that time, we provide advisement in the areas of daily operation, including such areas as pricing and marketing strategy. The ICDC also offers a resource library from within our office that includes materials such as computer hardware, software, and hard copy reference materials available for checkout.
MBJ: What other priorities do you see for ICDC?
CF: Port Itawamba will be a key factor in the success of economic development in Itawamba. We must continue our efforts in developing the port property to grow Itawamba into a regional intermodal logistics, and public warehouse center.
We will continue our recruiting efforts to bring new industries to the county as well as working with the existing businesses to strengthen their operations and make them more competitive from a regional standpoint.
MBJ: What challenges do you face in furthering economic development in Itawamba County and how will you be addressing them?
CF: Itawamba is currently faced with a double-edged sword of development. The ICDC does not have any industrial buildings within our control available for lease or purchase. This is positive in the sense that we don’t have any idle space. The negative of that same statement is that, without a building, it’s difficult to attract new industry.
And, with roughly 60% to 70% of prospect companies starting their relocation process by looking for an existing building, this puts us at a disadvantage. However, we have industrial land available and are researching the funding of a speculative building.
MBJ: PeopLoungers opened a new plant less than a year ago and closed it early this month. What is the reason and what is the future of the site?
CF: According to PeopLoungers president James Green, in a letter received July 12, the Mantachie facility will be reopened ‘“on or about October 1, 2004.” The facility was temporarily shutdown so that employees from the Mantachie operation could receive additional training at the corporate location in Nettleton.
We have seen a continued growth of industry in Itawamba, even when others in our area were not so fortunate. We have a quality workforce in our county and look forward to working with Mr. Green to make even more improvements to the Mantachie facility and toward their continued success in Itawamba.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.