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Rural areas turn to new ideas, attitudes as times change

It’s a bold new world out there for economic developers, and nowhere is that more keenly felt than in rural areas. In a state that’s predominantly rural, the plight of economic development in rural areas and how new challenges are being met is a major story.

“The game has completely changed and requires a whole new strategy,” said Gray Swoope, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). “We have to be willing to change and we’re seeing some great leaders and ideas around the state.”

One of those leaders is Tim Climer, who became executive director of the Sunflower County Economic Development District last March. One of the more populated Delta counties, Sunflower, with 34,000 people, has the area’s lowest unemployment rate at 7.5%. Climer says Sunflower County is in many ways a typical Delta county with a historically agriculture-based economy.

“We led the Delta last year in agriculture-related income,” Climer said. “Years ago a manufacturing component was added and now we are transitioning to a service component. Distribution is a vital opportunity we have too.”

He is proud that Dollar General stores recently opened a regional distribution center in the county that employs 500 people.

Geographically elongated, Sunflower County runs 56 miles from one end to the other and has differences in the northern and southern sections. The northern portion is home to the vast Parchman penitentiary that employs 1,500 people. Climer said 73 employees were recently laid off as part of the state’s downsizing of public prisons.

“We have our strengths and opportunities. We are known for Delta Pride Catfish and other processors,” he said. “We have four-lane highways in three directions now and have small to large businesses. We’re fairly diversified.”

At the Delta Council in Stoneville, executive director Frank Howell checks the pulse of all 18 counties represented by the regional agricultural and economic development organization. He says the area’s population, although holding steady, is not growing like the Gulf Coast, Jackson and Desoto County.

“It’s true all across the country and especially in the Delta that manufacturing jobs have been lost and are not coming back,” he said. “Agriculture is still the base for the economic engine in this area.”

Howell said a study by Mississippi State University revealed that the Delta has at least 66,000 jobs related to agriculture. Those industries include processing plants for catfish, rice, soybeans and cotton along with crop protection.

“They’re not big individually, but collectively they are,” he said. “We look at how we can enhance and add value to this economic base.”

Howell says the Delta addresses quality of life issues by having prospects talk to people who live there.

“Those are not issues you can measure by how many Chili’s restaurants or covered shopping malls we have,” he said. “We have some unique shopping and restaurants here, and we’re sticking with our strengths.”

Swoope said the Balance Agriculture With Industry (BAWI) program reigned for 70 years in Mississippi and reached its pinnacle in 1994. At one point, the state was ranked the country’s sixth-highest per capita in manufacturing jobs. More than 60,000 of those jobs were lost and have not been replaced.

“We have to have a new BAWI. We must transform ourselves,” he said. “There will still be some manufacturing jobs and we will still compete for them, but we must look at other things.”

Swoope said those alternative fields include retirement communities, call centers, tourism and emerging technology from universities in the state. Technology, he said, is spreading and can happen in rural communities as well as larger ones. Quoting from the book, “Boomtown USA,” Swoope said that 400 counties, all with populations of 40,000 or less, accounted for 16% of the country’s new jobs in the last decade.

“There are people who’re fighting economic distress by moving to more rural places,” he said. “Advances in technology and transportation are allowing that. All of us must change our attitudes toward economic development. Now we must look at other factors.”

Eleven of Mississippi’s 82 counties are noted in “Boomtown USA” as places that are ripe for increased economic activity due to quality of life positives that include healthcare, education, recreation, culture, low crime rate and low cost of living.

Those counties are: Attala, Oktibbeha, Covington, Pearl River, George, Pontotoc, Lafayette, Scott, Lee, Warren and Neshoba.

In Lawrence County in Southwest Mississippi, Bob Smira, executive director of the county’s community development association, feels the state has no plan or policy for rural economic development. Because of that lack, he says counties like his go back to basics.

“It’s tough. We have no large, built-up economic areas and are still chasing the few manufacturing jobs that we can put our finger on,” he said from his office in Monticello, “and we’re working on some opportunities.”

With a population just under 14,000, the county was seriously affected by NAFTA and the closing of a plant that for many years manufactured men’s work clothing. The county’s only large industry, a Georgia-Pacific paper mill, employs 600 people.

Smira says he is pushing the area’s forestry-based industry and its nearness to the University of Southern Mississippi’s renowned polymer research. He hopes to make an announcement in the next few weeks of a polymer-related company with the potential to employ 120 people within two years.

Lawrence County has also banded with nine other area counties to form the Southwest Partnership.

“We have agreed to work together and want to see the polymer industry be to southwest Mississippi what the furniture industry is to the northeast part of the state,” he said. “We’re struggling but have contacts and enough experience between us to get the attention of consultants.”

Regional partnering strategy

One part of the state that has taken the regional partnering strategy and run with it is East Central Mississippi. According to Linda Shepard, executive director of the Leake County Industrial Development Association, the group of 18 counties formed 10 years ago and has developed a network of unity and trust.

“The East Central Mississippi Economic Council (ECMEC) is a large group that is very diversified but we work well together,” she said. “We do things together that we could not do alone.”

The group, chaired by Charleigh Ford of Columbus, is busy this week hosting their annual regional familiarization tour for site consultants. Always held during the Neshoba County Fair, the ECMEC hosted 18 consultants for the tour last year and is hoping to top that number this year. The Pearl River Resort is used as the base of operations with a kick-off reception hosted by Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Chief Phillip Martin. In addition to golf at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club and the spectacle of the Neshoba County Fair, participants are given helicopter tours of the region and presentation packets from each county. Shepard said a data book is provided showing sites and buildings in the area.
Sponsors include Mississippi Power Company, Tennessee Valley Authority, Yates Construction, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, MDA, Entergy and North Mississippi Industrial Development Association.

Shepard says members of the council also travel together to trade shows to showcase the region. “We had booths at auto shows in Detroit, Birmingham, Nashville, Greenville, S.C., and Lexington, Ky.,” she said.

In addition to activities with the regional council, she said Leake County, population 21,000, believes in the importance of retaining the businesses they have and communicating with them.

Many Mississippi counties are benefiting from the USDA Rural Development, the old Farmers Home Administration, that has been tasked with doing community economic development. According to executive director Nick Walters, there are few counties in the state that do not qualify.

“We distributed $235 million in loans and grants last year and hope to do more this year,” he said. “I’m extremely optimistic about Mississippi’s future. We’re on the cusp to do some great things.”

The funds come from a federal allocation of $135 million per year. Mississippi, however, can dip into the funds of other states if those states do not spend all of their funds, Walters, who was appointed in 2001, said.

The funds are spent in a variety of ways to help rural communities make themselves more attractive to new companies. Jefferson Davis County received $1.6 million for a hospital renovation in Prentiss. Newton County was given $6.5 million for a new hospital. Brooklyn in Forrest County and New Augusta in Perry County were given funds for healthcare clinics. Twelve counties received a helping hand to establish a broadband for high-speed Internet. The Town of Gloster in Amite County got a new ambulance. And the list goes on to include housing, water and sewer improvements, equipment for fire departments and other first responders.

“We helped the City of Byhalia with a new city hall and police cars because they couldn’t do it alone,” Walters said. “They have a plan. They know what they want to be when they grow up. There are some places just trying to keep the lights on and we help them too.”

In Chickasaw County, the Town of Okolona, Patsy Gregory and the Okolona Area Chamber of Commerce/Main Street program are looking to diversify even though they’re part of the Tupelo manufacturing corridor. Gregory, the group’s part-time executive director, says the county currently has high unemployment because some of the furniture plants have laid off employees.

“Funding is one area of need that we have,” she said. “The city and county put in funds and we have membership dues, but most projects are funded by grants.”

With two industrial parks and additional land available and a just-completed four-lane highway, she says the area has some prospects. The chamber submitted two sites for TVA mega site certification that are now being processed.

“We see potential in tourism and have four areas of tourism we’re developing,” Gregory said. “We’re working on a tour of the town that will include 300 buildings in a National Historic District.”

The organization received a $300,000 grant to purchase an area Civil War battlefield that will enable Oklolona to be part of a Civil War Trail beginning at Corinth and traveling through Baldwyn, Meridian and Vicksburg.

Other tourist attractions include the Tombigbee National Forest and Okolona College, an institution for African-Americans that was in operation from 1902 until 1967. Gregory has completed a plan to apply for a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to restore Okolona College. She said Chickasaw County qualifies as a distressed county with the ARC.

The next challenge is to increase lodging options from the one motel and one bed-and-breakfast inn currently available in Okolona.

In an effort to help communities improve the quality of life component of economic development, Swoope said MDA began a pilot program last week that he describes as “Main Street on steroids.” Philadelphia and Yazoo City are the two Main Street towns chosen as guinea pigs to receive the assessment that MDA officials hope will increase their curb appeal.

“These will be models of how MDA might direct some brainpower resources to help them,” Swoope said. “MDA has great knowledge inside this building and we must get it out.”

He said the team of assessors will help the communities develop a plan of action and function as cheerleaders, coaches and facilitators. Hopefully, the pilot program will expand to include other towns in the state.

Attention will focus on entrances to the communities from someone else’s eyes, leadership, quality of life, business, workforce and infrastructure.

MDA’s director of communications Scott Hamilton said, “This program is not for the state to come in and throw money. The communities will have to figure out how to find grants but we can help them find them.”

Enhancing a community’s curb appeal will definitely require local residents taking pride and using peer pressure to make improvements, he added.

Greenwood is a poster child for the Main Street program. The Leflore County city received a national award for the transformation that took place in its downtown. Industry too, led by Viking Range, is thriving in the area. The county is rated one of the top 100 counties in the United States by Site Selection magazine.

“There’s excellent support here from government and the private sector,” said Robert Ingram, executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore Industrial Board and the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation. “We have good political leadership and a supportive private sector that works together.”

The keystone of the downtown revitalization was the renovation of the old Irvin Hotel, built in 1915, by the Viking Range Corporation. Now called the Alluvian Hotel after the rich soil of the Delta, the facility boasts 45 suites based on the European style and is world known. Ingram said a couple from France came there recently to be married because they read about the Alluvian Hotel in Architectural Digest.

The Viking Range Corporation purchased a Greenwood dining tradition, Giardinia’s Italian Restaurant, and recreated it next door to the hotel. Now, according to Ingram, the company and Main Street plan to create high-end retail boutiques in additional downtown space.

“Staple Cotton, the world’s largest cotton cooperative with over $1 billion in sales, renovated four old downtown buildings that now look like something in New York,” he said.

With 1,000 employees, Viking Range has grown from a one-room operation to the area’s largest employer and makers of the best ranges in the world, Ingram said. The company’s range, ventilation and refrigeration manufacturing, distribution, call and training centers and corporate headquarters are all in Greenwood.

The John Richard Corporation, manufacturer of high-end home accessories, and the Milwaukee Electric Tool Company also provide employment. The Hamlin Company, makers of commercial and industrial spiral ductwork, is scheduled to open in early 2005.

“We have a labor force capable of making these top-quality products and we sell our labor force,” Ingram said. “We show our plants to prospects. We have our niche and are not going after low paying jobs.”

The director said Leflore County, population 38,000, can’t be everything to everybody, so his organization targets what they do best and lets someone else go after the rest.

“The leaders didn’t want to just compete here but in the world,” he added. “Now we have to keep the momentum going.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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