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George County site boosted by Mississippi Export Railroad spur

Lucedale — Historically, the lion’s share of economic development occurring along the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been in Harrison and Jackson counties. But those counties have a limited amount of new industrial park space available, and have seen recent new industrial park proposals face opposition from nearby homeowners.

But step over the Jackson County line into southern George County, and one finds literally thousands of acres of industrial space available.

George County now has what it is touting as a “megasite” — a 1,200-acre park that doesn’t have difficult wetlands development hurdles that can slow projects in Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties.

There is no official “megasite” standard in Mississippi, but Columbus-Lowndes County recently had a megasite certified by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). While TVA doesn’t extend into South Mississippi, Sue Wright, executive director of the Greater George County Economic Development Foundation, believes its industrial park has everything that is needed to attract a major new development.

“The State of Mississippi doesn’t have any quantifiable criteria for certifying a megasite,” Wright said. “But we have followed the TVA certified megasite program with great interest and benchmark our location to that criteria. We have been working for almost three years now to prepare a major site that would make George County competitive. We are achieving that with one of our sites. That site has 1,200 acres, with a minimum of 800 contiguous usable acres. The Mississippi Export Railroad has extended a rail spur into this site that is being completed this month.”

Following the master plan

Lockwood Greene, a leading industrial consulting engineering firm, provided master planning for the George County site in 2001. Wright said since that time, they have systematically implemented the infrastructure and marketing strategies in the master plan.

The park fronting Highway 198 and Evanston Road is adjacent to the existing George County Industrial Park. The park is near the intersection of two four-lane highways, Highway 98 with connections to Mobile and Hattiesburg and Highway 63 providing access to Interstate 10 and the Port of Pascagoula or Port of Mobile. The new rail spur allows customers to use Mississippi Export Railroad to connect to Canadian National or CSX Railroad, carriers with extensive rail networks.

“The site gives us connectivity to major markets through rail transportation, highways and ports,” Wright said. “Manufacturers can easily access I-10 and I-65 in Mobile.

Having 1,200 acres of land this close to Mobile, Hattiesburg and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and their infrastructure positions us strongly. What puts us in an enviable position is that we do have large tracks of land available, and we don’t have the wetland’s issue faced by the Coastal counties. Also, we have another 600-acre site located on Highway 63 south of Lucedale.”

Wright credits the proactive elected leadership of George County with having the vision to commit to developing the large industrial sites.

“We have one of the premier sites in the Gulf region, but what truly distinguishes us is the political and community-wide commitment to the partnership and collaboration that will deliver long-term, bottom-line success for the companies that locate in George County,” Wright said.

The available land combined with very few environmental concerns makes it easy for a major industry to locate in George County.

“That is a large site, it is high and dry, and it is tied into the railroads and into two ports, the Port of Pascagoula and the Port of Mobile,” said Greg Luce, president of Mississippi Export Railroad. “It could do a lot for George County and the State of Mississippi. The best rail service anywhere is provided by motivated small railroads. They take very good care of the customer from the switching standpoint. We would play that role providing entrance into the major rail networks.”

The Mississippi Export Railroad is 42 miles long, and provides a link between the megasite and the two major railroads in the region. Luce said that while the Mississippi Export Railroad obviously hopes to pick up freight customers by extending the line into the George County megasite, the project is about more than just freight.

“It is about jobs,” Luce said. “We want to do something that helps the State of Mississippi. We’re moving to an area of George County that surely wants industry and jobs.”

A mega-workforce

Wright said that George County also has a “mega-workforce” with a vast regional talent pool of available labor to support the diverse types of industry the county is targeting. Marketing efforts put a major focus on letting prospective industries know about the strengths of the local workforce.

“A George County labor survey prepared by the eminent Wadley-Donovan Group effectively documents the area’s workforce,” Wright said. “We are also fortunate to have compelling examples of the flexible and creative training programs at our George County Center of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and the sustainable programs the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College system has provided major coastal industries such as Northrop Grumman and Chevron.”

Although George County would love to hook a major development along the lines of Nissan Canton, smaller companies are also welcome. There is plenty of room within the big sites to locate smaller companies.

“In addition to these large sites, we have many other small sites that would be the envy of other communities,” Wright said. “We have 20-, 50- and 80-acre sites available outside of these major areas.”

The recently completed rail spur is the beginning of a plan to eventually have a rail loop around the park. Short term, a Y-shaped track is being developed that allows trains to be brought into the park and turned around. The rail loop that is planned would give tenants at the park a great deal of flexibility.

“The loop rail will run through the entire 1,200 acres,” Wright said. “That is a real strength. It is difficult to find this large amount of acreage available with rail service.”

Water supply can be critical factor

Another advantage of the site when looking at the entire region is the availability of water. Adequate water supplies are becoming a big issue across the country, and George County’s abundant ground and surface water supplies are a plus.

“We have adequate water in George County,” Wright said. “We are not in the same situation as other areas with limited water. I think our adequate water resources will be a strength. As a community, we have to plan for the future to make sure we have adequate infrastructure in place such as water towers and the ability to tap into those water resources that we have.”

Wright said George County has identified four target areas for its economic development program:

1. With defense such a strong industry along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, George County feels it is a natural for attracting defense contractors and subcontractors, especially smaller companies which need access to defense companies along the Coast, but which would appreciate the lower cost of doing business in George County.

2. Metal fabrication businesses and suppliers. The county currently has a major metal fabricating business, American Tank and Vessel, located at its industrial park.

3. Wood products industries. Value-added products made from timber would be a good fit, particularly those which need railroads for shipment of their products. Currently the industrial park houses one wood products business, Tri-State Pole and Pilings.

4. George County is the horticulture capital of Mississippi. It is the number one producer of vegetables in the state, and has a large industry producing horticulture plants such as azaleas. The industrial park would be a good fit for a nursery support industry such as a manufacturer of plastic plant containers.

Work has already begun marketing the sites in George County.

In early September Wright traveled to Atlanta with other members of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance to meet with site location consultants. The alliance is made up of six coastal county economic development agencies: Harrison County Development Commission, Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, Greater George County Economic Development Foundation, Stone County Economic Development Partnership and the Partners for Pearl River County.

A business partner in the alliance is Mississippi Power Company, which serves as facilitator and neutral broker within the alliance.

“Mississippi Power helps put the members in contact with companies and consultants with projects, and the power company does that in an impartial and fair way among the partners of the alliance,” Wright said. “The alliance effectively markets the six district, diverse and dynamic counties as one strongly integrated point of contact package and point of contact.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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