Sometimes the biggest challenge for economic developers from smaller counties is simply to get site consultants to come take a look. That’s why the team approach of the East Central Mississippi Economic Council (ECMEC) has been so successful by allowing opportunities to market the area as a region
Most recently ECMEC took advantage of the famed Neshoba County Fair to hold a familiarization (FAM) tour for site consultants. Instead of just one county vying for the attention of consultants, representatives from 17 eastern and central counties pooled resources with three power companies, Mississippi State University, the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to showcase the best the region has to offer.
Gerald Mills, regional development specialist for the MDA, said the Neshoba County Fair provided a venue that was different.
“The Neshoba County Fair personifies Mississippi’s hospitality, and is something that would draw site consultants in to see our area because they are constantly bombarded with invitations to come see places,” Mills said.
“They really enjoyed it. The highlight of that tour is that one of the consultants brought a real live prospect to the site. The company is really serious about locating in Mississippi. This is a $9-million development with up to 500 employees. That they are looking at our area is a direct result of this effort. That in itself shows the event was successful.”
Mills said most site consultants don’t have time to visit 16 counties individually. But when they can come and look at an entire region, it makes it worth their time.
In addition to county and state economic developers, Mills said the event also got support from W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company, Johnson, Bailey Henderson McNeel Architects, PA, and Neel-Schaffer Inc., an engineering firm.
“When you bring in site consultants and they can talk to more than economic developers — people like architects and engineers — they feel like it is worth their while,” Mills said. “Some of the consultants have been back for three years. It is a real commitment when they come back for three years in a row.”
David Vowell, president of the Community Development Partnership in Neshoba County, said the focus of ECMEC has expanded from just working to attract automobile-related industries to working together to attract distribution, food processing, forestry and poultry-related businesses.
“We are working with that old philosophy, ‘There is strength in numbers’,” Vowell said. “For example, the FAM trip we had recently at the fair would have been hard for Neshoba County to have funded and handled all alone. We also couldn’t have attracted three power companies to help, TVA, Mississippi Power and Entergy.”
TVA provided helicopter tours of sites in the region. Gray Swoope, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority, spoke at an opening night dinner at the Golden Moon Resort, and the next day Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, moderated an early morning session with the consultants getting advice on how to put the best foot forward attracting new businesses and industries to the region.
The consultants stressed the importance of maintaining good relationships, and having accurate information available in a timely manner on issues such as the quality of life, education and the economy. Information including statistics should be available on Web sites and in brochures.
The morning session was followed by golf at Dancing Rabbit Golf Course, and then consultants were provided brochures from two sites from each county. Consultants selected six different sites they wanted to fly over in a helicopter. Most of the day was spent touring the sites. That evening TVA hosted a reception at the Dancing Rabbit Clubhouse. Comments were made by Glenn L. McCullough Jr., chairman of the board of TVA, and Choctaw Tribal Chief Phillip Martin. That was followed by trips to the Neshoba County Fairgrounds.
Vowell said the event was well received.
“From Tuesday to midday Thursday, we had some really good opportunities to be one-on-one with the site consultants, and show them not just Neshoba County, but all the surrounding counties and available sites,” Vowell said.
Charleigh Ford, president of ECMEC and vice president of economic development, Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, said the members of ECMEC learned a long time ago the advantages of regionalism.
“There is an awful lot of strategy that is going on, and we have an excellent grouping of counties that work very well together,” Ford said. “ECMEC started when Mercedes-Benz announced it was going into Vance, and here in Columbia, in Meridian and other communities, we all started making overtures to them especially in regards to attracting tier two and three suppliers.
“Now with the Nissan plant in Canton and Hyundai near Talladega, Ala., the region is in an even better position to attract automobile suppliers. We are getting into the thick of things as far as automobile assembly operations are concerns. Someone could come in here and serve a lot of automobile assembly plants at this location.”
ECMEC formed in 1995, and in the nine years since, the group has undertaken a number of initiatives. Rusty McMillan, executive director of the Mid-Mississippi Development District, said they have found themselves cooperating in other ways outside the direct focus of ECMEC.
“We don’t hesitate to call each other to get advice,” he said. “It is much more than just very specific activities and functions. It has become more of an attitude, working together. Everyone who participates has something to offer. That allows us to not only pool financial resources, but the ideas and individual talent of members, as well. In the final analysis, ECMEC is going to be judged by how well it works to improve the lives of the residents of East Mississippi.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.