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Rural counties still looking to replace lost factory jobs

Economic development is a struggle for some of the state’s rural counties where there are still voids left by the closure of garment plants. Developers say they would like to join the state’s campaign for technical industries, but realistically will take anything that puts local residents to work.

“In distressed areas like ours, we’d be happy to take any industry that would employ our people and give them benefits,” said Allen McLain of 11,000-population Humphreys County. “We’re not just looking for high-tech types.”

Unemployment was high in the Delta county after two garment sewing factories closed without being replaced. Known as the “Catfish Capital of the World,” the county has even lost two catfish processing plants. There are now only two left — the only industries in Humphreys County — and they employ less than 800 people between them.

McLain, who’s in the insurance business and has volunteered in development for 40 years, serves as industrial chairman of the Belzoni/Humphreys Development Foundation.

“Farming is big here, but the margin is extremely low, and without government subsidies farmers wouldn’t make it,” he said. “Also, it’s highly mechanized now and doesn’t employ a lot of people.”

He says the foundation has two existing buildings to offer new companies. Plus, they will make a good deal and a general or specific training program. “We don’t have a highly-trained workforce, but could develop a program tailor-made through the Capps Center at Mississippi Delta Community College,” he said.

Jobs are scarce

Jobs are also scarce in Tallahatchie County where two garment plants closed taking at least 500 jobs elsewhere.
Otey Sherman, chairman of the East Tallahatchie County Industrial Development Authority, said residents were really disappointed after a glove factory closed.

“They did well here and even closed a sister factory in Leland and moved it here,” he said. “They hired 250 people out of 800 applicants but later moved the plant to Mexico.”

Recently, some residents were hurt by the failure of the state-backed beef processing plant in nearby Oakland because they had already trained to work in the facility.

“Our people work in surrounding towns if they work,” Sherman said. “At one time, we had 1,500 residents traveling out of the county to work.”

He says the county’s latest unemployment rate is 14.1%, the highest in the area, along with the lowest per capita income. With a population of around 14,000, growth is stagnant and the county is home to many elderly and retired persons.

“We need something to draw those who are working,” Sherman said. “We’d like to see two levels of employment. We need jobs for unskilled labor people who are hard workers and trainable, and we’d like to attract more high-end jobs that would bring professionals to town.”

Sherman, a Union Planters Bank branch manager, also points out a success in the location of a private prison in Tutwiler on the west side of the county. It currently employs 350 people and will possibly hire more.

Beating the bushes

In Southwest Mississippi, Lawrence County lost 450 jobs when the Kellwood plant closed. Local leaders hope to put another company in the facility that housed the men’s work clothes manufacturer.

Bob Smira, president of the Lawrence County Community Development Association, says the closure created a void.

“They weren’t great jobs, but they were a great help to the local economy,” he said. “We’re beating the bushes. People are sincerely trying, but don’t recognize that the sewing industry is gone.”

He adds that high-tech companies don’t want to locate in rural counties where there aren’t amenities and growth. Now the county, with about 15,000 population, is hoping to attract agriculture-based and timber-related industries. Along with prepared food manufacturing, that would add value to processed food such as chicken.

“We’re not just sitting here crying,” Smira said. “We’re targeting other industries too that include automotive, metal fabrication, logistics and distribution and packaging.”

New ideas on drawing board

Gray Swoope, deputy director and chief operating officer with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), says the state has not forgotten rural counties. “We are not turning our backs on rural Mississippi,” he said. “We talk about it every day, and they will continue to hear plans. Next year, they will see some changes and innovative ideas out of this agency that we are not ready to announce yet.”

He points out that Momentum Mississippi continues to focus on traditional economic development along with added segments, such as back office and technical, that will also benefit rural areas. He says the initiative is not focused on minimum wage jobs because they do not provide workers with disposable income, thus not contributing sales tax and state income tax. A whopping 77% of state taxes last year were from sales, use and personal taxes, according to Swoope.

“If we kept the old type of manufacturing, rural counties would fall further behind,” he added. “We’re working harder than ever before, and our strategy includes them.”
Swoope also said MDA’s Momentum Communities program will help identify strengths and weaknesses towns and counties have for recruiting industries.

Period of transition

Sunflower County — population 33,500 — is in a period of transition, says Tim Climer, executive director of the economic development district. “We are trying to do everything well. We are emphasizing existing industries, but will always be in the recruiting business,” he said. “We are primarily an agricultural county, but do some value-added production and are looking for more.”

The Delta county is fortunate to still have one garment plant that’s a jacket and coat manufacturer for the military, government, fire and police departments. It lost a lawn mower maker in 2000, but has three industrial/distribution centers that employ more than 1,600 people.

“Our location works well for distribution centers because we have four-lane highways in four directions,” Climer said. “We are the crossroads of the Delta.”

Sunflower County does virtually everything with catfish. It is number one in the state in fishpond acreage, and that makes it number one in the country, he says. Catfish growers and processors are located there along with two fish food producers.

Now the county is hoping to expand its tourism base by honoring one of its most notable exports, blues man B.B. King. Funds for the B.B. King Museum are being raised by a local foundation. Leaders are also identifying historical and significant sites associated with the blues that visitors to the museum will want to see.

‘We’ve been lucky…’

Another success story is Tippah County where the development foundation executive director Duane Bullard says things are extremely good right now, and the close proximity to Memphis and Tupelo helps.

“We have a couple of furniture companies that have expanded over the last few months,” he said. “We have an automotive supplier that’s a high-capital company and going through its third expansion and has announced a fourth and fifth.”

Specialty Textiles & Health Care has employed 25 people in its Walnut facility. Echo Water has expanded, and pharmaceutical companies and subcontractors for Federal Express have located in the county.

“We’ve been lucky to a large degree because we lost some small plants years ago. The garment industry left, and we did not try to replace them with the same type of plants,” Bullard said. “We’ve diversified. We have a good workforce and a good highway system.”

He says the county of 22,000 has a heavy manufacturing orientation, and he expects the economic picture to continue to improve. Already surrounded by four-lane highways, the transportation system will include the new Interstate 69 corridor that goes through several states and Mississippi 15 that is expected to be four laned.

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

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